New Symposium Scholarship on Human Shields

We have covered on these pages the legal and moral issues surrounding the use of human shields in contemporary armed conflict situations. The American Society of International Law, in a new partnership with Cambridge Press, released yesterday its first symposium edition of the American Journal of International Law Unbound, which provides stereoscopic perspectives on this phenomenon, which has become “endemic” in modern warfare. The Symposium includes the following submissions:

  1. Neve Gordon & Nicola Perugini’s discussion, building upon their post here, of the “Evisceration of the Civilian,” which uses the situation in Mosul to argue that deploying the term “human shields” (as a “perlocutionary speech act”—speech meant to have a persuasive effect on the listener) preemptively relaxes the conditions under which Iraqi forces and their allies could deploy violence.
  2. Banu Barga’s essay situates truly voluntary human shields within the venerable tradition of civil disobedience—individuals exercising their agency in a performative act to protest an armed conflict in the service of peace.
  3. Charlie Dunlap draws attention to the way in which “ISIS’s sheer brutality and indifference to humanitarian norms has confounded its opponents who seek to observe the law” and explores provocative doctrinal and tactical options for countering the practice.
  4. Helen Kinsella applies a gender perspective to the phenomenon by highlighting the assumption that shields are primarily women and children, which draws upon a “masculinist logic of protection” and the pernicious stereotype of women as “harmless and defenseless.” Using a case study, she challenges the facile distinction between voluntary and involuntary shields.
  5. Vasuki Nasiah situates the modern conception of human shields in historical colonial violence, through the lens of the Algerian war of independence.
  6. Finally, my own contribution uses the situation in Sri Lanka to demonstrate the way in which the prohibition on using, or benefiting from, human shields can be cynically deployed to shield attackers from responsibility for excessive civilian deaths. I deconstruct a number of leaked legal memoranda—ostensibly produced for the Government of Sri Lanka by Western academics and international lawyers—that seek to absolve the government of responsibility for civilian deaths during the end of the conflict with the LTTE given the latter’s manipulation of the civilian population. I expose the analytical flaws in these arguments using existing international humanitarian law norms. (I’ve published a compilation of the relevant legal provisions here).

In the words of the editors, the “the critical [and I would add “multidisciplinary”] perspectives assembled in this thematic issue can provide us with greater insight into the growing phenomenon of human shielding, and its legal, political, and ethical implications.” 

About the Author(s)

Beth Van Schaack

Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Stanford Law School; Former Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).