Human Shields: From International Law to Legitimate Political Violence (Peace and Conflict Series)


Nicola Perugini on the weaponisation of human bodies and the increasing justification of the killing of innocent civilians through international law


Nicola Perugini is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. For this exclusive blog post in the Global Justice Academy’s Peace and Conflict Series, Nicola was asked to answer the following question about his research:

What does human shielding tell us about the link between international law and contemporary political violence?


Nicola Perugini

Human shielding is growing phenomenon intricately linked to the increasing “weaponisation” of human bodies in contemporary warfare. The term refers to the deployment of civilians in order to deter attacks on combatants or military sites as well as their transformation into a technology of warfare. From Gaza City through Mosul in Iraq to Sri Lanka, accusations of using human shields as an instrument of protection, coercion or deterrence have multiplied in the past few of years.

Indeed, the dramatic increase of urban warfare, including insurgency and counterinsurgency, terrorism and counterterrorism, has inevitably meant that civilians often occupy the front lines in the fighting, while the distinction between civilians and combatants is blurred. This, in turn, presents a series of ethical dilemmas relating to the use of violence and whether the violence deployed complies with international law.

Hafez Omar / “shaab samid” – the steadfast people

Voluntary or involuntary shields?

The word shield first appears in the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. Article 51(7) both prohibits the use of human shields and reiterates that it is legitimate for militaries to attack areas protected by human shields, provided that they abide by the principles of proportionality and military necessity.

The presence or movement 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.[1]

More recently, the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court characterized human shielding as a war crime.

Although international humanitarian law does not explicitly distinguish among different kinds of human shields, legal commentary tends to draw a distinction among involuntary, voluntary and proximate shields.[2] Military and legal history suggests that the introduction of the human shield clauses within the Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol was spurred by the Nazi practice of transporting civilian prisoners on trains carrying ammunition to shield the tracks from aerial attacks.[3] Along similar lines, in numerous theatres of violence militants randomly take civilians and force them to enter buildings suspected of being booby-trapped or to walk in front of soldiers to shield them from gunfire.  Unlike involuntary human shields, voluntary ones are typically depicted as people who willingly use their bodies during warfare in an attempt to achieve deterrence through the invocation of a certain moral sensibility.[4]

While most academic scholarship to date has focused on involuntary and voluntary shielding, proximate shields are in fact more widespread and comprise the more ethically challenging form of shielding. This form of shielding involves civilians living in the midst of fighting who become shields simply by continuing to inhabit their homes, schools, or workplace. Literally hundreds of thousands of civilians from Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq, through Gaza, to Raqqa in Syria have been categorized by the mainstream media as well as military and legal experts as proximate shields.

Licensed to kill

The vicious effect of this massive and random framing of civilians as human shields is that they are transformed into a new legal category which can ultimately allow their killing. In fact, when entire populations are framed as human shields in international law, they lose the traditional protection assigned to civilians. The attacking forces have to abide by the principle of proportionality if they bomb an area where human shielding takes place, but proportionality is relaxed when civilian areas are framed as areas of human shielding, since the enemy is accused of committing a crime by placing civilians close to military targets.

The Human U.S. Shield; 30,000 officers and men, Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Mich; US Library of Congress

Therefore, what seems clear is that the phrase human shield is not only descriptive, but is also being adopted pervasively, preemptively, and strategically as a constitutive part of warfare deployed in order to curb any critique against civilian losses in contemporary urban conflicts.

The book

My new book project—which is a continuation of my intellectual collaboration with my colleague Neve Gordon, with whom I have already written The Human Right to Dominate (OUP 2015)—will examine the genealogy of human shielding throughout different conflicts, from the American Civil War, through WWI and WWII, to colonial wars and the Vietnam war and the most recent conflicts in which the question of shielding has become a central issue of debate. What we want to show is that in parallel with the process of weaponisation of human bodies as tool of political conflictuality in urban wars, another process took place: namely, the increasing justification of the killing of innocent civilians using international law itself and its human shielding clauses.

International law can be a tool that enables sovereign violence against civilians, rather than one that restrains it. The legal figure of the human shield is a war-making and war enabling tool: a form of legal war that is quickly eviscerating the notion of the civilian or any universalist pretensions of the notion of the civilian.


[1] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, 1977, Art. 51(7), 1125 U.N.T.S. 3.

[2] Ezzo, Matthew W. and Amos N. Guiora. 2009. “A Critical Decision Point on the Battlefield–Friend, Foe Or Innocent Bystander.” In Security: A Multidisciplinary Normative Approach, 91-116. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

[3] Gordon, Neve and Nicola Perugini. 2016. “The Politics of Human Shielding: On the Resignification of Space and the Constitution of Civilians as Shields in Liberal Wars.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34 (1): 168-187.

[4] Bargu, Banu. 2013. “Human Shields.” Contemporary Political Theory 12 (4): 277-295.