July 27, 2017 | Policy Brief

How the Use of Human Shields Violates International Law

July 27, 2017 | Policy Brief

How the Use of Human Shields Violates International Law

Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups have a demonstrated propensity to use human shields to protect the infrastructure they use to stage attacks. They direct men, women, and children to place themselves on roofs and next to rocket launch sites to deter retaliatory measures. The use of civilians to protect military targets is a flagrant violation of international law and a war crime. If future conflicts arise and these actions are again taken, the leadership of Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, al-Aqsa Brigades, and others must be held accountable for using their supporters as military assets.

The relevant provisions of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) are set forth in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which were ratified by 196 nations, including every member of the UN. The core of these international agreements addresses the targeting of military assets and their distinction from targeting civilians, civilian property, and those wounded or captured. Human shields also fall into this category and represent the illegal use of civilians to deter military operations.

The prohibition of the use of civilians in warfare stems from both the Geneva Conventions and the additional protocols of 1977. Article 51 of the first protocol states, “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.” Additionally, Article 58 states that parties to a conflict shall “a) without prejudice to Article 49 of the Fourth Convention, endeavour to remove the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian objects under their control from the vicinity of military objectives; b) avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas; c) take the other necessary precautions to protect the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian objects under their control against the dangers resulting from military operations.” These protocols outlaw the use of civilians as shields for military operations.

There is cause for renewed concern about human shields because Hezbollah appears to be rearming itself with thousands of rockets and advanced missiles through its patron Iran while also developing a domestic capacity to manufacture weapons within southern Lebanon. In addition, Hezbollah appears to be using environmental NGOs as a cover to create lookout posts and infrastructure that could be used to target Israeli forces.

Hezbollah’s actions also illustrate the need to update and strengthen the implementation of UNSCR 1701 and the Taif Agreement, which both require the disarmament of militias in Lebanon. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) do not have the resources and political will to disarm Hezbollah. A recent State Department report cites Israeli estimates that Hezbollah has a stockpile of 130,000 rockets and missiles, including advanced anti-air and anti-ship missiles.

To ensure there are consequences for using human shields, Congress is stepping up to the plate with the introduction of the Sanctioning Hizballah’s Illicit Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act. The legislation calls upon the administration to seek multilateral sanctions on Hezbollah individuals and entities that facilitate the use of civilians as human shields. The bill also lays out sanctions and visa bans on individuals who engage in these activities. Congress also recently introduced two pieces of legislation amending the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 to target the group’s global money laundering and financing.

The U.S. and the international community must condemn the abhorrent use of human shields by Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic State, and other groups. Along with its partners, the U.S. must use all tools at its disposal to combat the use of human shields by terror organizations. By manufacturing civilian casualties, the use of human shields creates blame rather than compromise and is a direct impediment to peace.

Tyler Stapleton is deputy director for congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Tyler on Twitter @Ty_D_Stapleton.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.