What You Need to Know about Aiding Civilians Trapped in Conflict

This image was taken in 2013 at the Boy-Rabe Monastery in the Central African Republic's capital of Bangui. More than 15,000 people had taken refugee from fighting there. Copyright: ICRC

This image was taken in 2013 at the Boy-Rabe Monastery in the Central African Republic's capital of Bangui. More than 15,000 people had taken refugee from fighting there. Copyright: ICRC

Consider the following dilemma. Thousands of people are trapped inside a city that is running out of food, water and other basic aid. An armed conflict has engulfed the broader country for years. Government military forces outside the city have blocked humanitarian convoys to this city for months to starve fighters inside. Anecdotal reports indicate that ordinary civilians are starving to death or dying from diseases that could be easily treated. To make matters worse, military forces outside have begun indiscriminately shelling the town. Anyone that flees faces the threat of summary execution by military forces surrounding the city, and anyone that stays lives in fear of a shell landing on their home. What can be done? What should policymakers, humanitarians and militaries consider when contemplating some type of intervention to assist the population inside?

These were the types of scenarios and questions that more than thirty experts discussed at a closed door roundtable convened by the ICRC Washington delegation and InterAction this past April. The roundtable sought to identify what policymakers, militaries, humanitarians and other actors should consider as they contemplate interventions to protect and assist civilians` at-grave risk.

The ICRC and InterAction convened the group to identify operational and policy issues inherent in undertaking evacuations, establishing safe havens and other military actions that seek to protect civilians or aid civilians under threat. What conditions do humanitarians agencies need to undertake an evacuation successfully? What does enacting a no-fly zone actually entail in operational, legal and political terms? What are the potential unintended consequences of these types of interventions, and how can adverse consequences be mitigated? What lessons learned can be drawn from previous interventions? These were the sorts of questions the participants debated and sought to answer.

Past and present humanitarian crises in places like Central African Republic, Libya, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria were discussed. In addition to identifying some important considerations, the roundtable provided space for candid discussions between experts from the humanitarian community, US military, State Department, US Congress and think tanks around the town. The diversity of the audience enriched the discussion, and challenged my own thinking on some of these complex issues.

While by no means exhaustive, we hope this outcome report offers some useful analysis and important takeaways for those seeking to understand the legal, operational and policy issues inherent in evacuations, safe havens and a military options undertaken to protect or aid civilians living in desperate circumstances.


(The report was referenced by U.S. News & World Report this week in an article about so-called "safe zones".)


Trevor Keck

Trevor Keck serves as Public and Congressional Affairs Officer with the Washington Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In this capacity, he is responsible for representing the ICRC to a range of audiences in the U.S. and Canada, including Congress and leading civil society organizations. Prior to joining the ICRC, he was an Afghanistan researcher for Center for Civilians in Conflict, an organization that seeks to make warring parties more responsible to civilians. Based in Kabul, he conducted research on civilian protection issues, conducted interviews with victims of conflict across Afghanistan, and authored two reports as well as op-eds based on his original research. Before that, Trevor worked with various NGOs conducting research and advocacy on a range of security, humanitarian, and human rights issues. Trevor holds a Masters in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His master’s thesis on the concept of direct participation in hostilities was published in the Spring 2012 edition of the Military Law Review, the official publication of the U.S. Judge Advocate General Corps. He also holds a Bachelor in Peace and Conflict Studies from Chapman University graduating magna cum laude.