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Absent Safety: Humanitarian Corridors & the Ukrainian Crisis


Ukrainian civilians are evacuated from Volnovakha in the Donetsk region. Photo by Міністерство внутрішніх справ України. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0



Conflict, according to the United Nations, is one of the greatest obstacles to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. According to UN Security Council Resolution 1265, civilians account for the great majority of casualties in armed conflicts and are increasingly targeted by combatants and armed groups in order to destabilise peace and security. Helen Stacy, a Stanford professor in international and comparative law remarked that “civilians, often women and children, who played no role in the conflict, will suffer first, last and in the middle”. The intricacies of legally safeguarding civilians’ wellbeing during armed conflicts rose to the forefront of international debate and were enshrined in the Geneva Convention in 1949. Since then, numerous international and regional courts and tribunals have sprung up in order to oversee the correct implementation of the Convention’s articles, and punish violations thereof. However, confusion mounts among scholars, international organisations, nation-states and other stakeholders such as civil society organisations and NGOs when trying to disentangle the varied terminology around ceasefires or pauses in conflicts.


This article aims to build a better understanding of the role that humanitarian corridors play in mitigating civilian casualties and actively promoting and ensuring safety and wellbeing. First, it will briefly underline the existing complexity in regard to the terminology related to pauses during conflict in order to provide a firmer theoretical guidance. Second, an overview of its implementation in the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict will be given, aiming to acknowledge the successes and/or failures of implementing such a humanitarian strategy since the beginning of the ongoing war. The conclusion gives an overview of the main topics, together with some proposals on how to approach the use of such a humanitarian mechanism when it comes to Ukraine.


What are humanitarian corridors?


According to the United Nations, humanitarian corridors are a type of brief respite in armed combat. They are demilitarised zones that exist in a certain territory and for a specific period, and they ought to be agreed upon by the several parties involved in an armed conflict. Despite this general definition, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about the terminologies and language used to describe ceasefires and pauses in war, as well as corridors, safe areas, and humanitarian access. These terms tend to be easily interchanged, with little consistency in their application. Although there are no formal definitions of these phrases, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has put together a glossary of terms in relation to pauses in hostilities. According to the glossary, humanitarian corridors have been defined as “specific routes and logistical methods agreed upon by all relevant parties to allow the safe passage of humanitarian goods and/or people from one point to another in an area of active fighting”. Other vocabularies in the literature, such as “corridors of peace” and “corridors of tranquillity” are frequently used interchangeably with these meanings.


The choice of the "most fitting" humanitarian arrangement within a crisis is directly dependent on the specific circumstances of each situation. Some of the main elements which influence or allow for the adoption of a specific strategy include: the needs of the civilians caught within the conflict; whether simpler alternatives for providing assistance are available; the willingness of the hostile parties to agree to a specific measure; the capacity of humanitarian and international actors to carry out the arrangements safely; and lastly, whether the agreed upon procedures will truly and positively affect the protection level of civilians, together with an evaluation of any possible negative or unforeseen consequences.


It is important to underline that even though humanitarian corridors do enjoy some legal sponsorship, as they are referred to as "relief corridors" in UN General Assembly Resolution 45/100, and they still have not been defined in International Humanitarian Law. Thus, there is a lack of an overarching legal framework through which implementation and advocacy is conducted when required.


How and when to implement humanitarian corridors?


There are some key aspects to keep in mind when deciding to establish and implement humanitarian corridors. As corridors are context-specific (in terms of time, location and negotiation), it is difficult to draw general patterns and create overarching examples. Despite this, some major characteristics and limitations of these terms can be pointed out: First, due to their limited time and geographical scope, humanitarian corridors might be a suboptimal solution. The looming “expiration date” when implementing humanitarian corridors reflects the partiality that this solution brings in terms of safeguarding people’s wellbeing.


Second, it is heavily reliant on the involved parties’ agreement and consensus in setting them up and keeping them operative. An outstanding historical failure of keeping such an agreement was seen during the Bosnian War in 1993, after the collapse of Yugoslavia. During the conflict, international peacekeeping forces led by the United Nations, without the consent and cooperation of all parties involved, failed to protect residents in Srebrenica and Zepa from constant attacks by Bosnian Serb forces. In particular, the massacres that happened in Srebrenica in 1995 have been highlighted in the literature about humanitarian corridors as a textbook example of the effects that the absence of full consent and lack of means of protection in a conflict can bring. This meant that the safe area itself had the high potential of becoming a target. The Bosnian example also brings to light other important needs related to the successful instalment of a humanitarian corridor: the existence of a strong protective military presence and capacity.


Lastly, there is an important blurring of political and humanitarian lines. Given the complexities intrinsic to any conflict, interventions may have unexpected repercussions, particularly if they are not perceived as impartial or as serving the political goals of various participants. This is also important to take into account when discussing the militarization of humanitarian access to restricted areas, which could further jeopardise future access agreements.


Deliberate assaults on aid workers have become routine in the last few decades, despite being plainly unlawful. Humanitarian workers in war-torn nations often claim that relief groups are enmeshed in peacekeeping operations, exploited as a "force multiplier," or used as a diplomatic proxy. Furthermore, several armies give humanitarian help, further blurring the distinction between civilian and military aid. In the 2000s, for example, there were several debates about the function of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which were established by the US government and directed by military personnel in order to accomplish rapid growth in Afghanistan and Iraq. this raises the question of whether it is permissible for armed forces to engage in humanitarian activities.


The Russo-Ukrainian crisis


Since the escalation of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict at the end of February 2022, the two nation-states have routinely agreed on and established humanitarian corridors from some of Ukraine's most hard-hit cities, notably Mariupol, which has been encircled and shelled by Russian forces on a regular basis. Since then, thousands of people have been subjected to unlawful shelling and millions have been forcibly uprooted both nationally and internationally as a result.


However, despite the Russian leadership’s pledges, it has been reported that Russian military forces have impeded international and local humanitarian aid (mainly medicine supplies and food) from reaching Mariupol. One such example is the report that Russian forces blocked representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the town of Manhush, about 20 kilometres west of Mariupol. Hence, for the past few months, many attempts by the Ukrainian authorities to evacuate civilians using humanitarian corridors have been frustrated, since combat along the corridors has continued or even increased despite previously agreed upon cease-fire agreements with Russia.


The disrespect towards the establishment and enforcement of humanitarian corridors in the region has triggered several international responses, focused on denouncing human rights violations currently taking place within the conflict. For example, the head prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Karim Khan, said at the beginning of March that a team was sent to Ukraine in order to begin gathering evidence of alleged war crimes. Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, made a general call for the implementation of humanitarian corridors from Ukraine towards neighbouring countries.


Genuine humanitarian corridors must be established quickly, effectively, and safely. Civilians must not be put at even more risk as they seek to escape the conflict,” Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.


It is interesting to take into account that Russia's engagement in the Syrian conflict may provide insight into its war plan in Ukraine. In 2018, during heavy combat in Ghouta (Syria), Russia secured humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee. However, the many conflict participants, including the Syrian government and numerous domestic opposition groups, could not agree on these corridors, and international agencies such as the United Nations did not oversee them. This directly undermined the legitimacy and effectiveness of the application of such ineffective solutions, which in the end were only used by a handful of civilians. Another identifiable negative trend is the fact that Russia has a track record of targeting and striking health care and other civilian infrastructure in Syria.


Humanitarian corridors: A solution?


There is no overall right way to proceed when it comes to the implementation of humanitarian corridors. In an initial moment of a given conflict, it is critical to be able to distinguish between the different possibly applicable situations, notably between humanitarian pauses and those agreed upon as part of a political process. Only then can the proper mechanisms and processes be activated, taking into account a comprehensive and coordinated response which fits the specific context of a given struggle.


However, in certain cases, the application of such instruments is highly debated and disputed even as a temporary “go to” solution. For example, within the Syrian crisis context, installing humanitarian corridors was heavily criticised by several regional and international humanitarian organisations, as well as by a large number of human rights and development organisations. These actors considered corridors to be incongruous and dangerous, and further accused Russia and Syria (the main stakeholders advocating for this method) of using this humanitarian mechanism as a publicity gimmick or in order to regroup. Thus, depending on the specific situation, such an approach can have important flaws or twists, such as the lack of a real neutrality and being unable to truly safeguard the protection of civilians, which directly hinders its effectiveness.


While this article has given some famous (or infamous) examples of the application of humanitarian corridors, it is the ongoing Ukrainian context which shines a light on the theoretical and practical hardships of adopting such an approach. The crisis in Ukraine exposes the worrisome difficulty of actually being able to reach and support those in need, which directly translates to a lack of observance and protection of human rights and of its violations. Such an incapacity also relegates the implementation of humanitarian corridors to mostly local and grassroots organisations located within the conflict. While the literature on humanitarian corridors recognizes the greater capacity of local partners in implementing such a humanitarian strategy, it also underlines the necessity of creating more generalised systems for safe passage which serve to strengthen and support existing localised initiatives.


On one hand, this means that only truly coordinated responses to existing situations among the involved parties - such as a larger civil-military coordination team, a more enabling security management system for international, regional and local agencies, and agreement on defined response protocols - can ensure the positive outcomes of such a strategy and prevent its possible negative effects. Humanitarian corridors will not be “magical solutions” in the fight for safeguarding human rights. On another hand, the Russian strategy of frustrating the proper observance of previously agreed upon humanitarian corridors urgently requires harsher and more organised criticism from the international community than what has been heard to date. The recognition of this harmful strategy ought to be translated into proper sanctions which might finally put a halt to the conflict and to Russia’s historic noncompliance with humanitarian initiatives.


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