Humanitarian corridors carve out safe-haven avenues from the hell of war

Setting them up is easier said than done

WASHINGTON, D.C. - “War is hell and unfortunately civilians are victims of political conflicts.” That wisdom comes from comedian Joan Rivers, with some borrowing from Civil War General William T. Sherman.

Civilians caught in the middle of conflicts these days are trying to get out of the way – and are not doing so well. Given the trouble spots around the world, that’s not likely to change. One source of help, the humanitarian corridor, is showing up more and more in the news.

Here at DecodeDC we’ve been asking ourselves, what exactly is a humanitarian corridor and where is it being used?

Think of a humanitarian corridor as a temporary demilitarized zone intended to allow the safe transit of humanitarian aid in and refugees out of a crisis region – or both.

A corridor facilitates the transfer of food, clothes, medicines and hospital services such as ambulances. It is set on a specific route and is restricted in time and scope.

They take the form of neutralized and negotiated itineraries that can only be used to help non-combatant civilians who need help. In other words, humanitarian corridors are not to be used for military attacks.

The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 established the concept of safety zones as an attempt to declare certain areas off-limits for military targeting.  It required that both the state and armed groups take measures to minimize the impact of violence on civilians, and take steps to ensure the protection of civilians by enabling them to leave areas affected by violence. But that law doesn’t seem to be having much effect these days.

After the Cold War, the UN and other international bodies stepped in to declare “corridors of tranquility”, also known as  “humanitarian corridors”, “safe havens” or  “protected zones.”  Fighting still goes on of course, but civilians are supposed to be given safe passage out of the warzone. But that is easier said than done.

Northern Iraq

An Iraqi Christian family walk through a church where they are living with hundreds of other Christians after having to flee their district on June 26, 2014 in Erbil, Iraq.

The U.S. stepped up its attacks against the group ISIS, or the Islamic State, in northern Iraq over the weekend.

The airstrikes are aimed at stopping the Sunni militants from closing in on the northern Kurdish city of Irbil and attacking religious minority groups in the region.

Attacks last week forced thousands of Yazidis to flee into the nearby Sinjar mountains, where they were hiding with little food and water.

By Sunday night, at least half of the 40,000 people on Mount Sinjar had escaped with aid from Kurdish rebels who crossed from Syria to rescue them.

But what to do about the remaining thousands – how do you remove them from that mountaintop?

The United Nations says it is working on opening a humanitarian corridor in northern Iraq to allow stranded civilians threatened by the Islamic State to flee.

"Now that air drops have started, the U.N. in Iraq is urgently preparing a humanitarian corridor to allow those in need to flee the areas under threat," Nickolay Mladenov, special representative of the Secretary General for Iraq and head of U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, said in a statement.

Speaking Saturday on the White House South, President Barack Obama said the U.S. would work with other governments and the United Nations to try to create that humanitarian corridor.

“We feel confident that we can prevent ISIL from going up a mountain and slaughtering the people who are there. But the next step, which is going to be complicated logistically, is how do we give safe passage for people down from the mountain, and where can we ultimately relocate them so that they are safe. That’s the kind of coordination that we need to do internationally.”


Palestinian Muslim worshippers cross the Qalandia checkpoint on their way to Jerusalem on July 4, 2014 near Ramallah, West Bank.

The World Health Organization has called for a humanitarian corridor to be set up in Gaza to allow aid workers to evacuate the wounded and bring in life-saving medicines. In nearly a month of fighting between Israel and Hamas, more than 1,900 Palestinians have been killed, including hundreds of civilians. Nearly 10,000 people have also been wounded and thousands of homes destroyed. Sixty-seven people were killed on the Israeli side, including three civilians.

Even during wartime, fighters are obligated under international humanitarian law to ensure that people are able to reach medical care in safety, the WHO and Red Cross have said.

But both agencies also say that some sick and injured in Gaza are dying because of a lack of access to ambulances or health facilities, or the inability to leave the enclave for specialized treatment.

As Reuters reports:

“In a statement, the U.N. health agency said that it was difficult for the sick and wounded in Gaza to get access to health care and that some needed to leave the coastal strip for treatment. The humanitarian corridor should protect their safe passage, the WHO said, and the transport of essential aid should be facilitated at crossing points between the Gaza Strip and Israel and neighboring countries.”

WHO officials have discussed the humanitarian corridor proposal with both Israeli and Egyptian officials, but have not received a response yet, WHO spokesman Paul Garwood said.

"It's needed as an urgency," Garwood told a news briefing.


A woman stands near a house destroyed after bombardments carried out by Ukrainian armed forces in a village near the city of Marinkao, 15 km east of Donestk on July 13, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine.

On Tuesday, Russia sent 280 trucks of humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine, but the government there said it would deny the trucks entry amid fears it could be a covert military operation.

The United Nations' refugee agency has warned that continued fighting between pro-Russia militants who want to break away and Ukraine government troops "could lead to a massive exodus and massive destruction."

Some 200,000 people already have fled their homes due to the conflict. In the past few weeks fighting has increased in eastern Ukraine. Laurent Corbaz, the ICRC's head of operations for Europe and Central Asia, called the situation critical. "Thousands of people are reported to be without access to water, electricity and medical aid."

For a few hours last week, the government of Ukraine attempted to set up a humanitarian corridor for residents fleeing the fighting.

According to an AFP reporter who traveled the route, “Pushchairs were piled on the roof of another car, while white cloths hung from the wing mirrors of a truck -- as Ukrainian authorities requested from those planning to use the corridor between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. …. But a mortar blast just yards from the road and the booms of fierce clashes between government troops and insurgent fighters in a town along the route showed that even this ‘humanitarian corridor’… was hardly safe.

Insurgents at several checkpoints on the way out of the city stressed that people were free to leave.

"We are not preventing anyone. Everyone leaves freely. They go every day," said the fighter in charge of one checkpoint,” they told AFP.

War really is hell – especially for those civilians trapped in the middle.

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