Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini / Reuters – 2016-09-05 00:12:47
Using Human Shields as a Pretext to Kill Civilians
By claiming that the other side is using human shields, the attacker provides itself with a pre-emptive legal defense
Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini / Reuters
(August 30, 2016) â€“ Human shields have been making headlines for some time. Before the recent fray between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and Iraqi army in Fallujah, the United Press International released an article entitled “Iraqi forces halt Fallujah advance amid fears for 50,000 human shields.”
Indeed, not a day has passed in the past several months without an array of newspapers mentioning human shields in different theatres of violence: From Syria, where ISIL fighters fled Manbij in convoys apparently using human shields; through Kashmir, where “army and police used civilians as human shields in operations against militants”; to Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists were accused of using international observers as shields.
Moreover, the phrase human shields is not only used to describe the use of civilians in the midst of war, but to depict civilians in protests, from Ferguson in the United States, to Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.
Liberal democratic states are not the only ones who are warning the world of the increasing use of human shields; rather authoritarian regimes as well as a variety of local and international organisations of different kinds, from the Red Cross and human rights NGOs to the United Nations, are invoking the term.
In a recent confidential UN report, Houthi rebels were blamed for concealing “fighters and equipment in or close to civilians . . . with the deliberate aim of avoiding attack.”
Although different forms of human shielding have probably been conceptualised and mobilised since the invention of war, its quotidian use is a completely novel phenomenon. Why, one might ask, has this term suddenly become so pervasive?
Legally speaking, human shields refer to the use of civilians as defensive weapons in order to render combatants or military sites immune from attack. The idea behind the term is that civilians, who are protected under international law, should not be exploited to gain a military advantage.
“Given the strategic and pervasive adoption of the phrase human shields, it seems clear that the term is not only being deployed as a descriptive expression to depict the use of civilians as weapons, but also as a kind of pre-emptive legal defence against the accusations of having killed or injured them.”
While most people will undoubtedly be familiar with this definition, less known is the fact that international law not only prohibits the use of human shields but also renders it legitimate for militaries to attack areas being “protected” by human shields.
The US Air Force, for example, maintains that “lawful targets shielded with protected civilians may be attacked, and the protected civilians may be considered as collateral damage, provided the collateral damage is not excessive compared with the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated by the attack.”
Along similar lines, the 2013 document on joint targeting published by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff underscores the importance of the principle of proportionality, it also notes that, “otherwise lawful targets involuntarily shielded with protected civilians may be attacked . . . provided that the collateral damage is not excessive compared with the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated by the attack.”
Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme visiting fellow at SOAS, University of London.
Nicola Perugini is lecturer at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.