“Given the kind of precision weaponry you are using,” a French TV reporter demanded, “how do you explain so many civilian deaths, and are you not afraid that basically hurts what you believe to be the legitimacy of the fight?”
The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State answered: “We are fighting a brutal enemy that uses noncombatants as shields.”
Terrorists’ use of human shields is a remarkably effective tactic against countries like the U.S. and Israel, whose ethical and military codes require avoiding civilian casualties. Terrorists hide among civilians to shelter themselves from lawful attack or deliberately cause civilian casualties. The use of human shields is proscribed by the Geneva Conventions.
In August 2016, Islamic State fighters fleeing Manbij, Syria, escaped destruction by placing civilians in each of 500 vehicles in their retreating convoy. U.S. forces didn’t fire on the cars. ISIS also used human shields during battles for the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi, prolonging their hold on important territory.
During the 2006 conflict between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah, a senior United Nations official said: “Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending . . . among women and children.” Today the group has reportedly turned thousands of Lebanese homes, schools and hospitals into command posts and weapons depots.
The most prominent recent example is the Hamas-organized “March of Return,” a multiweek campaign during which thousands of Gaza civilians—including women and children—repeatedly rioted at the border with Israel. Groups of armed Gazans used these riots as cover to attempt to breach the border.
Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, admitted that the march was designed to generate civilian casualties—to sacrifice “that which is most dear to us—the bodies of our women and children.” The plan worked, he claimed, as “our people” forced onto “the world’s television screens . . . the sacrifice of their children.” Hamas official Salah Bardawil later admitted that most of those killed by Israeli troops defending the border were Hamas operatives. But the television images had already done the intended damage to Israel’s reputation.
While U.S. laws impose sanctions for terrorism, our recent study of Hamas leaders involved in using human shields shows that several have not been named as terrorists by the U.S., let alone the European Union or the U.K. At least one has traveled to Europe on behalf of Hamas without facing consequences.
Sanctions for using human shields could lead to prosecution in European courts and counter false claims that Western democracies are to blame for harm to these civilians. Too many Europeans believe that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, but war crimes still are taken seriously in Europe. In recent decades, universal-jurisdiction complaints alleging involvement in war crimes, based on mere allegations from nongovernmental organizations, deterred travel to Europe by George W. Bush and other former U.S. and Israeli officials. Human-shield sanctions can be used to help turn the lawfare tables against the terrorists.
Western forces must continue to minimize civilian casualties. Fighting with one hand tied behind their backs is the price of decency. But the U.S. government currently has no provision to impose sanctions specifically for using human shields. Legislation to do so has unanimously passed the House and is backed by a bipartisan group of senators. Ambassador Nikki Haley is spearheading a similar effort at the U.N.
Terrorists and their sponsoring regimes must be held accountable for their brutal practice of using civilians as human shields. Doing so would save civilian lives and give democracies the freedom to fight without both hands tied behind their backs.
Mr. Dubowitz is the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @mdubowitz.
Mr. Kittrie is a law professor at Arizona State University, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of “Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War” (Oxford, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @ordefk.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.