The Cable

The Hague Just Reminded Us Why Safe Zones May Not Be Safe

A Hague ruling has implicated Dutch soldiers in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre that occurred in a U.N.-designated safe zone.

SREBRENICA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - JULY 10:  A woman mourns over a coffin among 136 coffins of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre at the Potocari cemetery and memorial near Srebrenica on July 10, 2015 in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The newly-identified remains of another 136 victims from Srebrenica massacre will be buried at the ceremony on July 11, 2015 on the 20th anniversary of the massacre. At least 8,3000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who had sought safe heaven at the U.N.-protected enclave at Srebrenica were killed by members of the Republic of Serbia (Republika Srpska) army under the leadership of General Ratko Mladic, who is currently facing charges of war crimes at The Hague, during the Bosnian war in 1995.  (Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images)
SREBRENICA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - JULY 10: A woman mourns over a coffin among 136 coffins of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre at the Potocari cemetery and memorial near Srebrenica on July 10, 2015 in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The newly-identified remains of another 136 victims from Srebrenica massacre will be buried at the ceremony on July 11, 2015 on the 20th anniversary of the massacre. At least 8,3000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who had sought safe heaven at the U.N.-protected enclave at Srebrenica were killed by members of the Republic of Serbia (Republika Srpska) army under the leadership of General Ratko Mladic, who is currently facing charges of war crimes at The Hague, during the Bosnian war in 1995. (Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images)

Russia wants a safe zone in Syria where civilians caught up in war can flee to safety. Iran and Turkey support it. So, too, does Donald Trump.

Why would anyone oppose something that sounds as nice as a safe zone?

Because civilians fleeing to a safe zone may become fish in a barrel — as an appeals court in the Hague just reminded us.

The court ruled Tuesday that Dutch soldiers are partially responsible for 300 of the 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed in Srebrenica in 1995, in what became the largest mass murder on European soil since World War II.

The U.N. established the town of Srebrenica as a safe area in 1993 after the outbreak of the Bosnian War the previous year. A few hundred Dutch peacekeepers were deployed to defend the town, and ethnic Bosniak Muslims poured in seeking safety. But in July 1995, the Bosnian Serb army overwhelmed the city. When it became clear that the lightly armed peacekeepers couldn’t hold the town, some Bosniaks sought safety on the Dutch base. But Dutch soldiers turned 300 Muslim males over to Serbian troops, who tortured and killed them.

The International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia has accused the Serbian General Ratko Mladić, who headed the army, of war crimes and genocide; he is currently in detention in the Hague.

In its Tuesday ruling, the Hague stated that the peacekeepers should have known that forcing the civilians out of their base would result in their deaths. The court affirmed a similar 2014 ruling.

The Srebrenica massacre highlighted the dangers that safe zones present if they are imposed without sufficient security precautions. What the safe area in that small Bosnian town effectively did was concentrate the civilians who were most at risk all in one place, without providing adequate security or a credible guarantee from hostile forces that they would respect such a zone. The result was slaughter.

President Barack Obama opposed the creation of safe zones in Syria for much the same reason. Neither the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad nor its Russian backers have shown any qualms in waging war against civilians living in opposition-held parts of the country.

Trump, however, has thrown his support behind the establishment of protected areas in Syria. At peace talks conducted last month, Iran, Turkey, and Russia agreed to create four safe zones in Syria. Assad approved of the plan but Syrian rebels lambasted it, stating that they would not accept Iran, one of Assad’s strongest backers, as a security guarantor.

In recent months, the United States and Russia have engaged in secret talks to discuss establishing a similar zone in southern Syria.

Matej Divizna/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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