Buffer Zones

M. Shane Smith

September 2003

What are Buffer Zones?

From environmental to military disputes, buffer zones are often used to defuse or avert conflict. However, different terms are used to describe what may generally be considered buffer zones. For instance, a great deal of psychological literature discusses the importance of "personal space" as a type of buffer zone, while those involved in militarized conflicts may refer to "demilitarized zones." What is common among these concepts, and the defining aspect of buffer zones, is the existence of a physical area that separates opposing forces, wherein certain rules are to be respected by all parties to an existing or potential conflict in order to avoid escalating hostilities.

Different Types of Buffer Zones

It is widely believed that each individual has certain "body buffer zones" or areas around his or her physical body, which if intruded upon, will produce anxiety.[1] This personal space can be thought of as "fluctuating concentric globes of space, each defining a region for different kinds of social interactions."[2] People have different levels of spatial comfort when interacting with others, and those differences are often thought to be related to one's cultural background.[3] By being aware of and respecting these personal spaces, disputants may be able to avoid needlessly escalating an existing or latent conflict.

In some intractable conflicts, such as abortion-rights disputes, body buffer zones have been the conceptual basis for managing interactions among disputants. In the United States, anti-abortionists have a right to protest the legality of abortion and to voice their opinions outside clinics that provide abortion services. However, laws have been approved that not only provide patients with unobstructed access to such clinics, but also establish an imaginary "floating bubble" around the patients, which protesters cannot transgress. These "bubble laws" are intended to minimize tensions and the potential for hostilities. The laws were passed after a rise in abortion-related violence, in an effort to protect both patients and protesters. While limiting the free speech of anti-abortionists, these buffer zones recognize that one has a right to one's own personal space, and that violation of that space may increase anxiety levels and the potential for physical violence.[4]

This same concept -- that the relative proximity of disputants affects levels of anxiety and the potential for violence -- also guides the development of buffer zones intended to de-escalate or avoid military conflict. That is, the time it takes to mount a military offensive is a function of the distance between the attacker and the victim. If two military forces are face to face, the time needed for one to attack the other is negligible. Both sides must, therefore, remain in a constant state of alert, which discourages cooperative behavior that may be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness and exploited by the other side. In contrast, the larger the physical area between disputants, the greater the warning time each actor has of an impending military confrontation. Increasing the area between disputants, then, can help facilitate more cooperative behavior, reducing tensions and encouraging less-provocative postures by providing a "buffer" in the event that conciliatory gestures are exploited. Moreover, the greater the distance between opposing armed forces, the less likely that they will come into contact with one another and that miscommunication will lead to violence.

Where militarized conflict is a possibility, the parties to a dispute will often establish areas wherein no military activities are to take place. These demilitarized or buffer zones are often monitored by third parties.[5] By widening the involvement of actors and providing extra -- and hopefully unbiased -- assurances that the opponents are upholding their share of obligations, such monitoring may help legitimize, institutionalize, and reinforce the agreed-upon arrangements and facilitate cooperation toward resolving the larger dispute. For instance, in the absence of a formal ceasefire, the United Nations is responsible for maintaining and overseeing a buffer zone between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, where military activities are monitored and reported and U.N. peacekeepers provide a tripwire that discourages aggression.[6] Violations of the buffer-zone agreements, or endangering the peacekeepers by resuming hostilities, would likely result in international condemnation and pressure. These measures dissuade would-be aggressors, while holding the door open for potential negotiations toward resolving the larger conflict.

Buffer zones are also used to manage disputes over development. Inevitably, conflict emerges between social forces promoting modernization, increased population, or technological advancement, and those sectors of society that want to preserve natural resources or indigenous cultures. Indeed, modernization has historically had negative and sometimes perverse, as well as beneficial, consequences.[7] For instance, in recent decades, globalization has increasingly threatened age-old civilizations in underdeveloped countries,[8] with destabilizing and even violent outcomes. To help manage these social changes, governments have created buffer zones between areas intended for development and areas for cultural preservation, to limit the impact of globalization on indigenous civilizations.

Similarly, areas of ecological significance are at risk, as natural resources are increasingly required to provide for ever-expanding populations, and as technology permits the exploitation of areas once isolated from human activity. To address these rising concerns, buffer zones have been established to provide physical areas between social developments and environmental preserves that help limit human influence on ecologically valuable areas. For instance, increased recreation and tourism, fishing, industry, and population growth are endangering coastal waters. To address these concerns, governments are beginning to consider -- and some are implementing -- buffer zones to manage opposing conservationist and economic interests.[9]

Utility of Buffer Zones

There are three general reasons for establishing buffer zones: to provide sanctuary, to provide a neutral area that allows for supervision where contending claims exist (in order to, potentially, facilitate cooperation), and to simply reduce tensions through separation of disputants.

As suggested above, many human activities have irreversible effects on the environment. Industrialization and increasing human populations, for instance, arguably have devastating consequences for the environment. Thus, buffer zones are sometimes created to protect ecological reserves, restricting human population growth to preserve such natural resources as water sources, forests, and endangered species. Such use of buffer zones would be an attempt to provide a natural sanctuary, which helps alleviate tensions between conservationists and the forces of development.[10]

Similarly, during times of war, sanctuaries are often developed to provide refuge to non-combatants or to protect areas that may have environmental or social significance, where disputants agree that hostilities should not spread. For instance, much of the international community has, for many years, wanted to designate Jerusalem as a demilitarized area. During the Middle East hostilities of 1948, in the absence of such an agreement, the International Committee of the Red Cross fostered an agreement for establishing demilitarized zones within the city.[11] This provided a buffer zone between combatants and non-combatants that helped protect certain areas and sectors of society.

Social conflict is often a result of divergent material claims, especially regarding land. This has particularly been the case in the international context, where sovereign control within one's territorial boundaries is thought to be a defining characteristic of a state.[12] Thus, reasonable disagreements over determining boundaries, where one entity's control begins and another ends, may lead to open violence. In such cases, buffer zones are often created to separate claimants in an effort to avert hostilities. For instance, the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea provides a buffer between two opposing forces with divergent territorial claims. The buffer zone allows for monitoring of military activities in the area between the armed forces, reducing the potential for violence and opening the possibility for negotiations toward a resolution of the Korean conflict.

Rather than seeking a cessation of hostilities, in the hopes of facilitating cooperative behavior as a means to end a conflict, buffer zones are often used simply to reduce tensions where a conflict is largely intractable. The use of "bubble laws" for managing the abortion debate provides an example of how buffer zones can do just that. Such "cultural wars" or moral conflicts epitomize intractable conflict. Establishing a compromise between free speech and patients' rights by creating an imaginary bubble (which, in Colorado is approximately two arms' lengths, eight feet, or about two and a half meters) around patients arguably reduces the chance for an emotional situation to escalate to open violence, and provides a model for managing a conflict that has no identifiable solution.

[1] Horowitz, Mardi J., Donald F. Duff, and Lois O. Stratton, "Body Buffer Zone," Archives of General Psychology Vol. 1, No. 6 (1964), pp. 651-656.

[2] Jacob Lomranz, "Cultural Variations in Personal Space," The Journal of Social Psychology 99 (1976), pp. 21-27.

[3] Hall, Edward T., The Silent Language (NY: Doubleday, 1959); and, K.B. Little, "Cultural Variations in Personal Schemata," Journal of Personal & Social Psychology 10 (1968), pp. 1-7.

[4] Elaine B. Sharp (ed.), Culture Wars and Local Politics (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press).

[5] See also, essay on peacekeeping.

[6] See the United Nations Web page regarding its mission in Cyprus, at http://www.un.org/Depts/dpko/missions/unficyp/background.html.

[7] For a classic study on different experiences with modernization and its effects on political developments, see Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967).

[8] For a debate on whether globalization is creating a global culture see, Paul Du Gay (ed.), Production of Culture/Cultures of Production (London: Sage Publications, Ltd., 1997); and, Anthony D. Smith, "Towards an Global Culture?" Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 7 (1990), pp. 171-91.

[9] Edward D. Goldberg, Coastal Zone Space: Prelude to Conflict? (Paris: UNESCO, 1994).

[10] For a discussion on managing development, see The Canadian International Development Agency's Environment Handbook for Community Development Initiatives at http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/acdi-cida/acdi-cida.nsf/eng/REN-218123434-NNC.

[11] Sydney D. Bailey, "Nonmilitary Areas in UN Practice," The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 74, No. 3 (July 1980), pp. 499-524.

[12] See Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 201-214. For a historical overview of the evolution of sovereignty, see Walter C. Opello, Jr. and Stephen J. Rosow, The Nation-State and Global Order: A Historical Introduction to Contemporary Politics (Boulder: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1999).

Use the following to cite this article:
Smith, M. Shane. "Buffer Zones." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/buffer-zones>.

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