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The Terrible History of Human Shields The Terrible History of Human Shields

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The Terrible History of Human Shields

The possible use of human shields in Syria has a long precedent in some miserable history.

A Syrian military tank burns during fighting Wednesday in a suburb of Damascus. (AP Photo/The Syrian Revolution against Bashar Assad)

photo of Matt  Berman
September 4, 2013

The Mongols pierced holes into the hands of their female Japanese captives. They threaded ropes through the holes to connect the women together in a long line, and made them march ahead of the Mongol soldiers as a human shield, leading into Japan's fortresses. 

This is said to have taken place in the late 13th century. But the terrible story of human shields doesn't end there.

There are new reports this week that the Assad regime in Syria is moving troops into civilian areas ahead of a possible U.S. missile strike, and possibly placing prisoners in military sites. It's the kind of jaw-dropping military tactic that is typically scorned by the international community, and explicitly banned by the Fourth Geneva Convention (of which Syria is a party). It's also the kind of tactic that, if used during a possible U.S. strike, has the potential to completely deter and degrade the Obama administration's plans for quick, relatively painless, and limited action.


This isn't the first time we've heard of the Syrian regime possibly using human shields. The U.N. annual report on Children and Armed Conflict released in June 2012 included the Syrian armed forces on the list of parties that recruit, use, or abuse children in armed conflict. The report specifically accused Syrian troops of using children as young as 8 as human shields during raids. In March, based on witness reports, Human Rights Watch accused the Syrian government of having "endangered local residents by forcing them to march in front of the army during recent arrest operations, troop movements, and attacks on towns and villages in northern Syria."

Among tyrannical regimes, the use of human shields has an infamous recent history. NATO worried that forces loyal to Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi were using civilians to protect themselves in April 2011. Libyan rebels claimed that August that the government was using human shields in Qaddafi's birthplace of Sirte.

But perhaps the most notorious recent proponent of human shields was Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Hussein used "thousands of foreign and Iraqi civilians as human shields in bids to manipulate domestic and international opinion and deter military action against his regime" when he was in conflict with the West, according to a January 2003 CIA report. The CIA alleges that in 1990, Hussein "held more than 800 Western, Japanese, and Kuwaiti nationals" in Iraq and Kuwait to defend his regime from an attack to end its invasion of Kuwait. In 1997, Hussein "enticed or coerced" thousands of Iraqi civilians to act as voluntary human shields to ward against an attack after Iraq refused to let U.N. inspectors into some sites. Iraqi men, women, and children served as human shields at roughly 80 palaces and facilities during the crisis.

The CIA report was released at a significant time, just months ahead of "shock and awe" and the beginning of America's war with Iraq. For his part, President Bush warned in a February 2003 speech that Hussein "regards the Iraqi people as human shields." The CIA report expressed concern that the Iraqi regime was again preparing to use human shields ahead of a coalition strike, and was actively courting volunteers from international antiwar groups.

Those volunteers, including American and British activists, showed up and were welcomed with open arms. They stayed in cushy Baghdad hotels, and it was "almost like being on holiday," one of the activists said in a March 2013 BBC interview. To their chagrin, the activists wound up being moved by an Iraqi liaison to infrastructure sites, not big civilian areas. By the time the bombings occurred, there were between 25 and 100 human-shield activists in the country, and none of the sites they were protecting were hit.

Now activists have arrived in Syria, too. According to Iran's PressTV and Russia's RT, Syrians calling themselves a human shield have crowded around some military buildings in the country. "I'm a normal citizen, I'm not a government employee, and I do not do anything in the government," a woman says in an interview with PressTV. "When I heard about this campaign, I came with my family."

Antiwar protesters with dubious backing and reports of regime use of human shields didn't work to halt a U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003. With a potential human-shield crisis on our hands again, we'll soon see if a possible civilian disaster can be avoided.

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