Human shield

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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. A third meaning is when a combatant holds another person in front of him or her to shield him or her from projectiles (usually bullets), often by holding that person in a headlock or nelson hold.

Using this technique is illegal by nations that are parties to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, and the 1998 Rome Statute.[1]

20th century[edit]

The Barricade by the American artist George Bellows inspired by an incident in August 1914 where German soldiers used Belgian civilians as human shields.

World War II[edit]

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.[2][3]

Wehrmacht and later SS forces extensively used Polish civilians as human shields during Warsaw Uprising when attacking the insurgents' positions.[4][5]

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 carpetbombing which destroyed 67 Japanese cities with incendiary bombs and the use of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[6][7][8][9]

Persian Gulf War[edit]

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.[10]

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.[11]

21st century[edit]

War in Afghanistan[edit]

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,[12] and 2007,[13] and when the British attacked during August 2008 during the war in Afghanistan.[14]

Israeli-Palestinian conflict[edit]


The IDF acknowledged using the "Neighbor Procedure” or the “Early Warning Procedure”, in which the IDF would encourage a Palestinian acquaintance of a wanted man to try and convince them to surrender. This practice was criticized by some as using "human shields", an allegation the IDF denied, saying that that it never forced people into carrying out the Neighbor Procedure; and that Palestinians volunteered to prevent excess loss of life. Amnesty International[15] and Human Rights Watch[16] are among the groups who made the "human shield" comparison. The Israeli group B'Tselem also made the comparison, saying that "for a long period of time following the outbreak of the second intifada Operation Defensive Shield, in April 2002, the IDF systematically used Palestinian civilians as human shields, forcing them to carry out military actions which threatened their lives".[17] The Neighbor Procure was outlawed by the Supreme Court of Israel in 2005 but some groups say the IDF continues to use it, although they say the number of instances has dropped sharply.[17][18]


Israeli writer Amos Harel in Haaretz alleged that during the Second Intifada (2000–2005) Palestinian gunmen routinely used civilians and children as human shields and cited photographs of militants operating in civilian areas.[19]

The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict that took place in 2008-2009 stated that it "did not find any evidence of civilians being forced to remain in their houses by Palestinian armed groups".[20] An Amnesty International report in 2009 criticized Hamas for human rights violations, but found "no evidence Palestinian fighters directed civilians to shield military objectives from attacks, forced them to stay in buildings used by militants, or prevented them from leaving commandeered buildings".[21] A review article in Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law stated that Israel warned residents to leave by using warnings such as roof knocking and phone calls, and that "Israel asserted that Palestinian civilians who did not abide by the warnings were acting as 'voluntary human shields,' and were thus taking part in hostilities and could be targeted as combatants." The article determined this assertion to be unsupportable in international law.[22]

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center [23] accused Hamas and other armed groups of making extensive use of human shields as integral part of their war doctrine during the Gaza War (2008-2009).[24]

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused Hamas militants of violating international humanitarian law by "locating rockets within schools and hospitals, or even launching these rockets from densely populated areas."[25] The US Deputy National Security Adviser and the European Union condemned Hamas for using human shields.[26][27] Several news outlets reported on rockets being placed near their hotels, including France24, Australia’s Channel Nine, and Russia Today.[28][29][30] Several journalists who alleged Hamas use of human shields and rocket locations close to civilian infrastructure reported being threatened by Hamas,[31][32] including Janis Mackey Frayer of Canada's CTV, who reported seeing a Hamas gunman dressed in a woman's headscarf with a "tip of a gun poked out from under cloak.” [33] [34] [35]

Iraq War[edit]

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. Of the human shields who stayed throughout the war, none were killed or injured and none of the sites where they were residing were destroyed.[citation needed]

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".[36][37][38]

Lebanon War[edit]

Australian journalist Chris Link reported and 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,[39] although Human Rights Watch then 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.[40] 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.[41]

Human Rights Watch conducted its own investigation on the 2006 Lebanon War, during which Israel accused Hezbollah of using civilians, and reported that Hezbollah did not "deliberately" use civilians as a deterrent from IDF attack, and that when violations happen it was not "routine[] or wide[]".[42] HRW found that Hezbollah did not "routinely" stored weapons in or near civilian homes[42] and that most often fighters launched rockets from rural, unpopulated areas that they declared no-go zones for Lebanese civilians.[42] It did find that Hezbollah purposely endangered UN observers by launching attacks near them.[40][42]

On July 25, 2006, Israeli forces attacked and destroyed an UN observer post in southern Lebanon, resulting in four deaths.[43] 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).'"[44][45] 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.[46]

Siege of Lal Masjid[edit]

According to the Pakistan Army spokesman, Islamic militants used girls as human shields in Pakistan during the 2007 Siege of Lal Masjid. The mosque's head cleric denied the allegations.[47][48]

On December 4, 2009, terrorists attacked a Friday prayer ceremony in a mosque in Rawalpindi, Pakistan,[49] where Bilal Riaz, a graduate student, acted as a human shield to save his nephew's life.[50]

Sri Lanka[edit]

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.[51]

Libyan Civil War[edit]

Main article: 2011 Libyan civil war

Some Gaddafi loyalists were acting as human shields in the Libya no-fly zone, to try to protect Gaddafi's compound and airports.[52]

Syrian Civil War[edit]

Main article: 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.[53]

Crimean crisis[edit]

Main article: 2014 Crimean crisis

Russian troops are reported to have used local civilians to avoid defence shooting when storming the Ukrainian Navy headquarters in Sevastopol[54] and Ukrainian naval vessels.[55]

Other use[edit]

Use by anti-war activists[edit]

In recent years civilian volunteers have attempted to use themselves 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.[56][57] Several of these human shields had to be rescued by U.S. Marines after Iraqis threatened them for opposing the invasion of their country.[58]

Use by pro-Palestinian activists[edit]

The human rights group Rabbis for Human Rights agreed to act as “human shields” during the annual olive harvest to protect Palestinian villages from settlers.[59] 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 the military uses civilians as shields.[60] 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”.[61] 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Practice Relating to Rule 97. Human Shields". International Committee of the Red Cross. 
  2. ^ Berger statement to Allied intelligence officers, Nuremberg, 19 October 1945
  3. ^ "The Last Escape". Penguin Books UK. Retrieved 1 April 2015. 
  4. ^ (Polish) Adam Borkiewicz: Powstanie warszawskie. Zarys działań natury wojskowej. Warszawa: Instytut wydawniczy PAX, 1969, p. 99
  5. ^ Antoni Przygoński: Powstanie warszawskie w sierpniu 1944 r. T. I. Warszawa: PWN, 1980, p. 242. ISBN 83-01-00293-X.
  6. ^ Bill Van Esveld (August 17, 2009). Rockets from Gaza: Harm to Civilians from Palestinian Armed Groups' Rocket Attacks. Human Rights Watch. p. 26. ISBN 1-56432-523-7. 
  7. ^ Library of Congress (October 2, 2007). The Library of Congress World War II Companion. Simon & Schuster. p. 335. ISBN 0-7432-5219-5. 
  8. ^ History of World War II: Victory and Aftermath. Marshall Cavendish Corporation. 2005. p. 817. ISBN 0-7614-7482-X. 
  9. ^ The Law of Air Warfare - Contemporary Issues. Eleven International Publishing. 2006. p. 72. ISBN 90-77596-14-3. 
  10. ^ BBC News. "1990: Outrage at Iraqi TV hostage show". Retrieved 2 September 2007.
  11. ^ "United States of America Practice Relating to Rule 23. Location of Military Objectives outside Densely Populated Areas". International Committee of the Red Cross. 
  12. ^ "Taleban use children as shields to fight British", The Times online, June 20, 2006
  13. ^ "Taliban 'using civilians as human shields'", ABC Australia 2007
  14. ^ Thomas Harding."Taliban 'used civilians as human shields' when British attacked", The Telegraph, August 18, 2008
  15. ^ "Israel and the Occupied Territories Shielded from scrutiny: IDF violations in Jenin and Nablus". Amnesty International. 2002-11-04. Retrieved 2007-09-09. [dead link]
  16. ^ Human Rights Watch, Jenin: IDF Military Operations, VII. Human Shielding and the Use of Civilians for Military Purposes, May 2002.
  17. ^ a b B'Tselem, "20 July 2006: Israeli Soldiers use civilians as Human Shields in Beit Hanun", July 20, 2006.
  18. ^ "Israel Probes "Human Shield" Allegations", CBS News, 11 April 2007.
  19. ^ Harel, Amos (August 3, 2004). "Analysis / Stoking an appetite for revenge". Haaretz. Retrieved September 30, 2011. The photographs from recent operations show that the armed Palestinians use the many civilians in the area, including children, as a "human shield". Since this is done routinely, harming children (some, it is possible, by Palestinian fire) becomes almost impossible to prevent. 
  20. ^ of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict Paragraph 475
  21. ^ "Amnesty accuses Israel of using human shields in Gaza". Agence France Presse. 5 Jul 2009. 
  22. ^ Sterio, Milena (2010). "The Gaza Strip: Israel, its Foreign Policy and the Goldstone Report". Case Western Journal of International Law 229: 244–245. 
  23. ^ Hamas exploitation of civilians as human shields: Photographic evidence Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs March 6, 2008
  24. ^
  25. ^ DEITCH, IAN and IBRAHIM BARZAK. "Israel vows to destroy Hamas tunnels, deaths spike". Retrieved 8 August 2014. 
  26. ^ EU strongly condemns indiscriminate Hamas rockets on Israel and use of Palestinian population as human shields, ‘terrorist groups in Gaza must disarm’, calls for ‘immediate ceasefire’', European Jewish Press, 22 July 2014.
  27. ^ European Union: Hamas, other Gaza terror groups must disarm, Haaretz, 22 July 2014.
  28. ^ "Exclusive: Hamas rocket launch pad lies near Gaza homes". France24. 7 August 2014. 
  29. ^ Peter Stefanovic of Australia’s Channel Nine News tweeted that rockets had been fired "over our hotel from a site about two hundred metres away. So a missile launch site is basically next door.”
  30. ^ "Gaza reporters’ tweets: Hamas using human shields". Jerusalem Post. 24 July 2014. 
  31. ^ "Journalists threatened by Hamas for reporting use of human shields". Jerusalem Post. 31 July 2014. 
  32. ^ While Israel held its fire, the militant group Hamas did not
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^ "Iraq War Vet: "We Were Told to Just Shoot People, and the Officers Would Take Care of Us"". Truthout. 7 April 2010. 
  37. ^ Winter Soldiers Retrieved 22nd August 2014
  38. ^ Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations Retrieved 22nd August 2014
  39. ^ "Photos that damn Hezbollah", Herald Sun, 30 July 2006.
  40. ^ a b Human Rights Watch, Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon, Summary, August 2006.
  41. ^ "Deadly Hezbollah chess match", The Washington Times, 26 October 2006.
  42. ^ a b c d Why They Died (Report). Human Rights Watch. September 6, 2007. 
  43. ^ "Israeli bomb kills UN observers", BBC News, July 26, 2006.
  44. ^ "Hezbollah was using UN post as 'shield'", Ottawa Citizen, July 27, 2006.
  45. ^ "Annan's Claims On Casualties May Unravel", The New York Sun, July 27, 2006.
  46. ^ Hezbollah was using UN post as 'shield'", Ottawa Citizen Retrieved 22nd August 2014
  47. ^ Pakistan's Red Mosque Showdown: Jihadists Using Girls as Human Shields?, Spiegel International, July 5, 2007.
  48. ^ "Pakistani soldiers storm mosque". BBC News. 2007-07-10. Retrieved 2008-05-10. 
  49. ^ 17 children among 37 martyred in Pindi attack, Geo News, December 4, 2009.
  50. ^ Remembering Bilal Riaz, anasimtiaz, December 5, 2009.
  51. ^ "War on the Displaced", Human Rights Watch, February 19, 2009
  52. ^ Hartley-Parkinson, Richard (March 22, 2011). "For the sins of his father: Gaddafi's son 'killed in kamikaze pilot attack on barracks'". Daily Mail (London). 
  53. ^ "Syria: Local Residents Used as Human Shields". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 1 April 2015. 
  54. ^ "Russian forces take over Ukrainian military bases in Crimea; Ukrainian naval commander missing". KyivPost. Retrieved 1 April 2015. 
  55. ^ "Marines cannot shoot because the Russians are using Civilians as Human Shields". Voices of Ukraine. Retrieved 1 April 2015. 
  56. ^ "Human shield Britons quit Baghdad", The Telegraph, March 2, 2003
  57. ^ "UK bus owner defends Iraq trip",, March 4, 2003.
  58. ^ Coughlin, Jack; Kuhlman, Casey; and, Donald A. Davis. Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper. St. Martin's Press, (2005).
  59. ^ "Settlers clash with rabbis guarding Palestinian olive harvest near Hebron" Haaretz, 13 October 2008 Associated Press.
  60. ^ "ISM report", 5 May 2003
  61. ^ [1]Document - Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Israel/Gaza conflict, July 2014