2009/06/03

Human shields

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A quite common allegation is that a war party (usually the one with inferior firepower) allegedly uses "human shields". It's one of the ethics-based attacks that information warfare and interested media/NGOs can launch.


Yet, I found it to be inaccurate at times.

Here's why: The international law ban (the accusation is also used loudly by hypocrites who too often ignore international law themselves) of such behaviour is based in the Geneva conventions.

Geneva Convention III (on POW)

Art 23. No prisoner of war may at any time be sent to, or detained in areas where he may be exposed to the fire of the combat zone, nor may his presence be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.

Prisoners of war shall have shelters against air bombardment and other hazards of war, to the same extent as the local civilian population. With the exception of those engaged in the protection of their quarters against the aforesaid hazards, they may enter such shelters as soon as possible after the giving of the alarm. Any other protective measure taken in favour of the population shall also apply to them
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Geneva Convention IV (on civilians)

Art. 28. The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.

Art. 34. The taking of hostages is prohibited.

Art. 35. All protected persons who may desire to leave the territory at the outset of, or during a conflict, shall be entitled to do so, unless their departure is contrary to the national interests of the State.

Additional Protocol I

Art 51. - Protection of the civilian population
(...)
7. The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favour or impede military operations. The Parties to the conflict shall not direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations.
The same additional protocol says

Art 51. - Protection of the civilian population
(...)
8. Any violation of these prohibitions shall not release the Parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians, including the obligation to take the precautionary measures provided for in Article 57.
and
Art 57. Precautions in attack

1. In the conduct of military operations, constant care shall be taken to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects.

2. With respect to attacks, the following precautions shall be taken:
(a) those who plan or decide upon an attack shall:
(i) do everything feasible to verify that the objectives to be attacked are neither civilians nor civilian objects and are not subject to special protection but are military objectives within the meaning of paragraph 2 of Article 52 and that it is not prohibited by the provisions of this Protocol to attack them;
(ii) take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss or civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects;
(iii) refrain from deciding to launch any attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated;

(b) an attack shall be cancelled or suspended if it becomes apparent that the objective is not a military one or is subject to special protection or that the attack may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated;
(...)
4. In the conduct of military operations at sea or in the air, each Party to the conflict shall, in conformity with its rights and duties under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, take all reasonable precautions to avoid losses of civilian lives and damage to civilian objects.

5. No provision of this article may be construed as authorizing any attacks against the civilian population, civilians or civilian objects.
(All emphasis was mine, of course.)

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Thankfully I'm no lawyer, but the language in these conventions is still easily understandable.

My reading of these conventions is that

* 'Human shielding' (if it fits to the conditions of the conventions) is illegal (for the signatories at least) and due to the prestige of these conventions largely agreed to be unethical.

* The same is true for attacks that occur in expectation of civilians/protected persons, albeit with little latitude ("feasible", "excessive", "reasonable").

* Civilians are entitled to leave.

* I don't see anything that prohibits soldiers from moving into civilian buildings and settlements or from fighting there (unless they prevent that the civilians leave).


One example: A patrol comes under intense attack from a house near a road. They saw civilians going into the house previously. They're pinned down and call for an air strike.
This is neither a case of human shielding (the civilians moved in - they could have run away) nor an illegal killing of civilians (the patrol had no real alternative except dying).

Now imagine the civilians were forced to go into the house and kept from leaving - then it's human shielding and illegal.

Now imagine the patrol had smoke grenades available and could have sprinted to safety a mere 50 m away. This is the point where the air attack would in my opinion become illegal for they would not have done enough to avoid civilian casualties as demanded by the convention.


Another example: A battalion takes a rest from the fighting and takes quarters in a village. The civilians are still in the village.
That does not appear to be human shielding, but - and this was surprising to me - an air attack on the village would likely be illegal.

- - - - -

The "human shield" term became well-known during the Gulf War 1991 when Saddam Hussein was doing exactly what these conventions (especially GC3) were meant to prevent.

Later usage of the term "human shield" was in part inflationary and tainted by partial public relations efforts in my opinion.

Some accusations of the last years sounded as if it was illegal to be a combatant in a settlement during wartime when it isn't per se.
It looked quite often more like public opinion warfare than like accurate descriptions of what happened.


Well, warfare is a very dirty and evil activity. It's naive to believe that any party that actively participates in a war would stay clean of war crimes. It's naive to think of one war party as despicable war criminals and the other as clean soldiers who never step over the limits and always do their best to be good.


Every statesman who launches a war should understand that he causes war crimes.

The reason is simple: War is too evil to match our expectations of a good world. It's too evil to even match the moderate expectations as written down in these conventions.

Actually, it's evil enough that we should simply learn and remember not to wage needless wars.
We should only wage wars of necessity.


P.S.: It's well-known since the First World War that the population at home is an important factor at war and its support must be assured.
The legal texts of these conventions form the basis for the public's consensus of what's ethical or unethical in war.

Armies and air forces can talk about supposedly special circumstances in a war in an attempt to exceed the limit of ethical actions, but that's strategically extremely risky.

It's also not helpful to point at evil enemies. That may be part of the justification why you're fighting them, it cannot justify unethical actions on your part.

It's equally pointless (and strategically risky) to question the validity of the conventions in a certain war zone (Afghanistan didn't sign the additional protocol). The public doesn't seem to be interested in such details and applies the rules in general - not just when they are valid legally.

In short: Violations of these conventions pose a huge strategic risk (in wars of choice). The public support at home will be undermined by unethical behaviour of the own troops and we've had enough examples of how strategically decisive that can be.
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