Humanitarian Corridors and the Rule of Law Can Help Keep Civilians Safe in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has quickly descended into a bloody encirclement of cities and towns, with Russian forces conducting targeted and indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations. For this reason, humanitarian corridors are vital to ensure the safety of innocent civilians in the face of indiscriminate bombing, war crimes and a deteriorating humanitarian situation.

These attacks have already cost the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians, with the death toll likely to increase over the coming weeks. As it currently stands, there have now been well over 2,000 civilian casualties, including more than 800 killed.

In the city of Mariupol, civilians are bearing the brunt of Russian aggression from both land and sea. Reports coming from the city are apocalyptic, with the constant shelling of homes, hospitals, schools and civic buildings reducing the city to rubble. This is compounded with a lack of food, power and medicine that has led to an ever worsening humanitarian crisis, particularly for children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

This is causing untold despair for those grateful to be alive but unable to escape. While it is estimated that a quarter of the pre-war population of 400,000 were able to flee west in the early days of the conflict, those who remain are trapped and increasingly desperate.

In targeting civilians and using illegal cluster munitions and landmines, Russia is committing war crimes, which are clear breaches of the Geneva Convention and international law. This was confirmed in March by the Unites States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who stated that there are “credible reports” of Russia targeting civilians which would “constitute a war crime”. This allegation has since been repeated by several heads of state throughout the world.

With Russian forces withdrawing from Kyiv to refocus on taking regions in Eastern Ukraine, it is vital that civilians are allowed to safely escape what will likely be a brutal battle for territorial control. This is particularly relevant considering the recent images from around Kyiv, particularly Bucha, with civilians allegedly targeted and killed by Russian forces in what are further instances of abhorrent war crimes.

In a positive step, the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation over alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces. While neither Ukraine nor Russia are parties to the ICC, the court does have jurisdiction over this conflict due to Ukraine granting jurisdiction following allegations of crimes committed during Russia’s previous aggression against Ukraine in 2014. While the likelihood of Putin being successfully prosecuted at the Hague is unlikely, it reveals the dire situation innocent civilians face in Ukraine.

If the international community cannot intervene in the conflict directly, humanitarian corridors are the next best solution to ensure that civilians caught up in this conflict are able to escape besieged cities. These corridors are essentially safe zones that provide an orderly, and more importantly, safe avenue of passage out of conflict zones. They also allow humanitarian aid to flow into these zones to assist those than cannot leave.

The caveat here is that these corridors are dependent on both parties, particularly Russia, consenting and respecting their implementation through a ceasefire or via security guarantees. While Ukraine and Russia have agreed to implement humanitarian corridors at times so far, Russia has subsequently targeted these corridors, killing civilians in the process.

Russia has form here, with a history of bombing civilians, hospitals and schools and targeting humanitarian corridors. In Ghouta, Syria, in 2018, Russia offered corridors for civilians fleeing conflict. However, forces allied to Russia subsequently attacked civilians trying to escape. The same scenario occurred in Aleppo, with Russian forces conducting airstrikes on civilian infrastructure, such as houses and hospitals, killing thousands of people.

It is obvious that Russia has not respected international rule of law in protecting civilians. This clearly needs to change.

Russia needs to agree, in good faith, to establish timely, orderly and safe humanitarian corridors that allow civilians trapped in cities like Mariupol to access transport and to flee west towards the relative safety of Kyiv and Lviv without fear of bombardment.

Humanitarian organisations should also be allowed freedom of movement, without being targeted or indiscriminately bombed, to provide vital supplies to those most in need, including food, water and medicine. Human rights monitors and journalists should also be safely allowed to document any war crimes or human rights abuses committed against innocent civilians.

Failing this, the international community is obligated to protect civilians by providing any assistance necessary to end the war as quickly as possible. This is in the form of hard economic sanctions and military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine so it can better protect its civilians caught up in the conflict.

With peace talks currently ongoing, and their eventual outcome unknown, it’s vital that both parties agree on the protection of civilians by allowing them to leave besieged cities. In what is a positive step, the Russian Defence Ministry announced this week that a ceasefire would be put in place for Mariupol to allow civilians to leave via a humanitarian corridor. They have also called for this to be undertaken in partnership with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, it cannot be forgotten that Russia has reneged on agreements previously and a hopeful yet cautious approach to this news is required.

Barring a quicker than anticipated end to the conflict, humanitarian corridors are the best option to ensure civilians lives are saved. While Russia has a history of not respecting international law, pressure needs to be applied by the international community to implement these corridors to put a stop to abhorrent war crimes that are costing innocent lives. The world is watching, and waiting, to see whether Russia now does the right thing.

[Photo by Mirek Pruchnicki / Flickr]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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