Human shield is a military and political term describing the deliberate placement of non-combatants in or around combat targets to deter the enemy from attacking these combat targets. It may also refer to the use of persons to literally shield combatants during attacks, by forcing them to march in front of the combatants.
World War II
After World War II, it was claimed by German SS general Gottlob Berger that there was a plan, proposed by the Luftwaffe and approved by Adolf Hitler, to set up special POW camps for captured airmen of the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces in large German cities, to act as human shields against their bombing raids. Berger realized that this would contravene the 1929 Geneva Convention and argued that there was not enough barbed wire—as a result, this plan was not implemented.
At the Wola massacre in Poland on 7 August 1944, the Nazis forced civilian women onto the armored vehicles as human shields to enhance their effectiveness. In Belgium in May 1940, at least 86 civilians were killed by the German Wehrmacht known as the Vinkt Massacre, when the Germans took 140 civilians and used them as shields to cross a bridge while under fire.
During the Battle of Okinawa, Japanese soldiers often used civilians as human shields against American troops.
When the Japanese were concerned about the incoming Allied air raids on their home islands as they were losing their controlled Pacific islands one by one to the Allies in the Pacific War, they scattered major military installations and factories throughout urban areas, therefore, historians argued that Japan was using its civilians as human shields to protect their legitimate military targets against Allied bombardment. As a result, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) was unable to strike purely military targets due to the limitations of their bombsight, the mixing of military installations and factories with urban areas, and the widespread of cottage industry in Japan's cities. This led the USAAF in early 1945 to switch from precision bombing to carpet bombing which destroyed 67 Japanese cities with incendiary bombs and the use of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
1982 Lebanon War
During the 1982 Lebanon War, the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh was surrounded by Israeli forces as the last stronghold of Palestinian militants in southern Lebanon, but "Soldiers of Allah" militants commanded by the Muslim fundamentalist Haj Ibrahim refused to surrender: Their motto was "Victory or death!" Over a two-day period, Israeli forces under the leadership of Brigadier General Yitzhak Mordechai repeatedly announced "Whoever does not bear arms will not be harmed" and urged civilians in the camp to evacuate, but few did. Three delegations of prominent Sidon figures were sent to persuade Haj Ibrahim's fighters that "their cause was hopeless, and whoever was willing to lay down his arms would be allowed to leave the camp unharmed." None of the delegations were successful; the first was prevented from approaching the fighters by "a spray of bullets," while the third "returned with the most harrowing tale of all": "Militiamen were shooting civilians who tried to escape. In one particularly grisly incident, three children had been riddled with bullets before their parents' eyes because their father had dared to suggest calling an end to the fighting." After a delegation of Palestinian POWs—"headed by a PLO officer who was prepared to give the defenders his professional assessment of Ein Hilweh's grave military situation"—and an offer by Mordechai to "meet personally with" Haj Ibrahim were also rebuffed, "a team of psychologists ... was flown to Sidon to advise the command on how to deal with such irrational behavior." However, "the best advice the psychologists could offer was to organize yet another but considerably larger delegation comprising some forty or so people and including women and children"; Haj Ibrahim responded to the fifth delegation with "exactly the same three words"—triggering a bloody battle in which Israeli troops finally took the camp.
Operation Blue Star
Operation Blue Star was an Indian military operation carried out between 1 and 8 June 1984, ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to remove militant religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers from the buildings of the Harmandir Sahib complex in Amritsar, Punjab. Bhindranwale and large number of his militants were killed in the operation. There was a high civilian casualty (Total 493 including militants) also in the operation, since the militants had been using the pilgrims that had been trapped inside the temple as Human shields. The pilgrims were not allowed by the militants to escape from the temple premises in spite of relaxation in the curfew hours by the security forces. The militants had hoped that the presence of thousands of pilgrims inside the temple premises would have prevented the action by army.
Persian Gulf War
One of the most famous uses of human shields occurred in Iraq in 1990, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that precipitated the Gulf War of 1990–1991. Saddam Hussein's government detained hundreds of citizens of Western countries who were in Iraq for use as human shields in an attempt to deter nations from participating in military operations against the country. A number of these hostages were filmed meeting Hussein, and kept with him to deter any targeted attacks, whilst others were held in or near military and industrial targets.
In 1991, during the operations in the Gulf War, the U.S. submitted a report to the UN Security Council denouncing Iraq for having “intentionally placed civilians at risk through its behavior”. The report cited the following examples of such behavior:
- (a) The Iraqi Government moved significant amounts of military weapons and equipment into civilian areas with the deliberate purpose of using innocent civilians and their homes as shields against attacks on legitimate military targets;
- (b) Iraqi fighter and bomber aircraft were dispersed into villages near the military airfields where they were parked between civilian houses and even placed immediately adjacent to important archaeological sites and historic treasures;
- (c) Coalition aircraft were fired upon by anti-aircraft weapons in residential neighborhoods in various cities. In Baghdad, anti-aircraft sites were located on hotel roofs;
- (d) In one case, military engineering equipment used to traverse rivers, including mobile bridge sections, was located in several villages near an important crossing point. The Iraqis parked each vehicle adjacent to a civilian house.
Shortly after the cease-fire between Croat and Serb forces, the Bosnian Serbs launched an assault against the safe area of Goražde, heavily shelling the town and surrounding villages. Protests and exhortations from the UN Security Council turned out to be ineffective, and on 10 and 11 April 1994, NATO launched air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions. In retaliation, Bosnian Serb forces captured many UN personnel, using them as human shields at sites expected to be bombed. In a similar situation to what had happened in Sarajevo, an ultimatum was issued, and by the 24th, most of the Serb troops had complied.
War in Afghanistan
According to various accounts—including that of the American ambassador to the U.N., the Taliban used women and children from their own population as human shields against coalition forces in 2006, and 2007, and when the British attacked during August 2008 during the war in Afghanistan.
During the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, a group of people chose to travel to Iraq to act as human shields. Their purpose was to prevent American-led coalition forces from bombing certain locations. Of about 200 to 500 human shields who traveled to Iraq before hostilities, at least eighty stayed.
Scott Ewing, Cavalry Scout, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, US Army, who served in Iraq in the 2005-2006 period, stated that US troops would give candy to Iraqi children so they would stay around their vehicles, thereby making more likely that "the bad guys wouldn't attack. We used the kids as human shields".
Australian journalist Chris Link reported what he claimed were photographed incidents during the 2006 Lebanon War in which Hezbollah used Lebanese civilians as human shields to dissuade the IDF from firing at gunmen and rocket launchers. The alleged incidents occurred in the Christian area of Wadi Chahrour in Eastern Beirut removed from the primary war zone of South Lebanon. Human Rights Watch conducted its own investigation and reported that Hezbollah did not "deliberately" use civilians as a deterrent from IDF attack. HRW did however conclude Hezbollah stored weapons "in or near civilian homes" and fighters launched rockets within populated areas and near UN observers. HRW also accused Hezbollah of using Lebanese homes as sites for rocket launchers, usually without the homeowner's knowledge or permission, putting large numbers of civilians at risk.
On July 25, 2006, Israeli forces attacked and destroyed an UN observer post in southern Lebanon, resulting in four deaths. One of the fatalities, Canadian Major Paeta Derek Hess-von Kruedener, had sent an e‑mail to his former commander, retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, several days before his death in which he described the Israeli bombardment, writing "The closest artillery has landed within two meters of our position and the closest 1,000 lb aerial bomb has landed 100 meters from our patrol base. This has not been deliberate targeting, but rather due to tactical necessity". MacKenzie interpreted this language for a reporter: "What that means is, in plain English, 'We've got Hezbollah fighters running around in our positions, taking our positions here and then using us for shields and then engaging the (Israeli Defence Forces).'" A senior UN official, replying about Maj. Hess-von Kruedener's e-mail concerning Hezbollah presence in the area of the UN base said. "At the time, there had been no Hezbollah activity reported in the area. "So it was quite clear they were not going after other targets; that, for whatever reason, our position was being fired upon." He went on to claim that the Israelis were told where the UN base was and that it was clearly marked but they bombed it anyway.
Siege of Lal Masjid
According to a Human Rights Watch report published on February 19, 2009, the LTTE had been preventing Tamil civilians from fleeing out of rebel held area and using them as human shields against a Sri Lankan Army offensive. The LTTE was principally responsible for the loss of civilian life during the final phase of the armed conflict through their action to use fleeing Tamil civilians as Human Shields.
Libyan Civil Wars
In March 2016, during the second civil war, it was reported that two Italians who had been kidnapped in June 2015 were killed while they were used as human shields by Islamic State gunmen in Sorman.
Syrian Civil War
During the Syrian Civil War, the Syrian Armed Forces and loyalists were accused by Human Rights Watch of using residents of towns as human shields when advancing on opposition held areas, forcing them to march in front of the army. Witness from different towns across the country said that the army had kidnapped people and forced them to march in front of them when attacking towns and villages. The purpose of this was to protect the army from attack. HRW said "The Syrian army should immediately stop this abhorrent practice." Witnesses stated that the army forcibly used children and elderly people as well to deter anyone from firing on the soldiers.
The Islamic State (ISIL) militants, Saudi-supported Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, and Jaysh al-Islam anti-Assad rebels were accused of using civilian residents of towns, Alawite civilians and captured Syrian soldiers as human shields.
Jammu and Kashmir
Reports of Indian forces, both Army as well as counter-insurgent police forces, using Kashmiri civilians as human shields have sporadically appeared in the reports of media as well as in the reports of human rights organisations such as HRW. However, on April 9, 2017, A 26-year-old man, alleged by the Indian Army to be involved in throwing stones at Indian troops, was tied to the front of a Jeep belonging to Indian Army as a column of Indian troops was moving through a locality, the man was reportedly tied to the vehicle to dissuade other Kashmiri protesters from hurling stones at the Indian troops. The BJP led Indian Govt. stated that it will stand by the officer who took the decision (to use the young man as a human shield). Furthermore, members of the ruling BJP took to social media and threatened a country wide agitation if any action was taken against the erring military Major, identified as Major Leetul Gogoi.
Voluntary human shields
In recent years civilians have volunteered to serve as “human shields” to prevent military conflict. In January 2003, anti-war activists organised Human Shield Action to Iraq in advance of the March 2003 invasion. Ultimately, Human Shield Action brought 200 people to Iraq. Many of them left as they ran out of money and the likelihood of war became greater. Several of these human shields had to be rescued by U.S. Marines after Iraqis threatened them for opposing the invasion of their country.
Rabbis for Human Rights agreed to act as “human shields” during the annual olive harvest to protect Palestinian villages from settlers. Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, Western International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteers in the Palestinian territories, who died in 2003 and 2004 respectively have been described as “human shields” campaigning against house demolition. ISM, however, strongly takes offence at the use of the term human shield to describe their work, preferring it be used only to refer to when armed combatants uses civilians as shields. Not even Amnesty International defines volunteer activist's actions or activist's actions for non-military property as “human shields”, and regards only the direction of "specific civilians to remain in their homes as “human shields” for fighters, munitions, or military equipment" as “human shields”. According to the 3 definitions in the header of this article the 'volunteers to protect Palestinians' make them not “human shields outside the battlefield” but protesters or ordinary pro-Palestinian demonstrants.
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- Human wave attack
- Falling on a grenade
- Civilian casualties
- Close combat
- Human rights in Israel
- Human rights in the Palestinian National Authority
- Urban warfare
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