Instances of the use of civilians as a way to discourage enemy fire, or as a battle strategy, can be found from as far back as the conquests of Genghis Khan in the early 13th century through to the 2 World Wars. The Geneva Conventions and protocols laid down rules on the treatment of soldiers, civilians, prisoners of war, etc. in times of war and armed conflict. Human shields have, however, continued to be used by both state and non-state actors even into the 21st century. Broadly, three kinds of forces have indulged in the practice when not engaged in declared war — armies of ‘weak’ states and rebel forces during civil strife, terrorists or anti-state actors, and states that have strong institutional mechanisms in place.
LTTE and Sri Lankan Army
The worst stories of abuse emerged in the final phase of the conflict in 2009. According to Human Rights Watch, the Tamil Tigers used fleeing citizens as human shields. The Sri Lankan Army has been accused of killing civilians and prisoners. In March 2014, the UN Human Rights Council authorised an investigation into “crimes against humanity” during the civil war. Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, but it has not ratified the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court, making it unlikely that it will be prosecuted for the alleged crimes.
The siege of the Lal Masjid
After overrunning the Lal Masjid complex in Islamabad, the Pakistan Army said the terrorists, led by the brothers Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid, who had taken over the buildings, were using women and children as human shields. The Army and Rangers’ Operation Sunrise lasted a week in July 2007, and ended in the killing and capturing of dozens of militants. Abdul Rashid was among those killed; Abdul Aziz was arrested while trying to escape the complex in a burqa.
The Syrian civil war
In the Syrian civil war, ongoing since 2011, the Bashar al-Assad government, rebel forces and Islamic State have all been accused of violating the human rights of civilians and captured combatants. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the Syrian Army of putting children and the elderly in front as soldiers marched into towns. The IS reportedly uses Shia civilians and captured soldiers as human shields.
Accountability in Israel
In 2004, in the middle of the Second Intifada (2000-05), Israeli human rights activists accused police in the West Bank village of Bidou of tying a 13-year-old Palestinian boy named Mohammed Badwan to a vehicle, apparently to stop protesters from throwing stones at it. The alleged incident occurred 2 years after the Supreme Court in Israel had banned the use of human shields. In February 2007, AP TV released footage of a 24-year-old Palestinian, Sameh Amira, being used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers in Nablus, also in the West Bank. The Israeli Army, after an investigation, suspended the commander whose unit was involved in the act. Then, in 2010, the Israeli Defence Forces prosecuted and convicted two staff sergeants for using civilians as human shields, and handed them 18-month sentences — which HRW criticised for being “excessively lenient”.