The Paradox of Safe Areas in Ethnic Civil Wars

24 Jan 2018

Safe areas established by powerful states can improve short-term civilian protection during ethnic civil wars. Paradoxically, however, they may worsen the plight of vulnerable civilians over the medium term. This can occur in three ways. First, when safe areas encompass sizeable territories within a broader conflict zone, they may reduce incentives for protected groups to compromise during peace negotiations, thus prolonging hostilities. Second, there is a nontrivial possibility that protected groups will use the safe areas as a base for launching high-risk offensives, deliberately putting civilians at risk in the hope of drawing the protection forces more deeply into the war. Third, safe areas may embolden protected groups to seek unilateral secession, further increasing the risk of conflict escalation. By elucidating the causal mechanisms involved, this article helps us assess the probability of these outcomes occurring. States that consider intervening militarily to establish safe areas in ethnic civil wars need to weigh the short-term benefits against these possible longer-term downsides.