Human Shields and the Location of Agency

Neve Gordon & Nicola Perugini discuss their new book, Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire (University of California Press, 2020) with Ayça ÇubukçuNoura Erakat & John Reynolds.


John: What inspired you to write this book, and what is it, in essence, about?

Neve & Nicola: While working on our previous book, The Human Right to Dominate, we repeatedly encountered Israel’s accusation that Palestinians use human shields as a warfare strategy in the Gaza Strip. The argument was straightforward: since armed Palestinian groups deploy civilians as human shields, placing them in front of legitimate military targets, Israel is not responsible for civilian casualties and cannot therefore be blamed for violations of the laws of war. We sensed that Israel’s accusation was part of a preemptive defence strategy against the allegations that it had committed war crimes during its 2014 military campaign “Protective Edge”, where at least 2,133 Palestinians were killed, 1,489 of whom were civilians, including 500 children and 257 women.

We also realised that this line of reasoning was common in other theatres of political violence–from the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, to the wars in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Syria and Yemen. We decided to create a google alert for news articles mentioning the phrase “human shield”, and as time passed the number of alerts increased exponentially. The fact that numerous states were increasingly accusing their non-state enemies of hiding behind civilian shields – while using this accusation to justify and legitimise high civilian casualties – was chilling, and prompted us to ask a series of questions: How is it possible that residents who are trapped in a war zone are, at times, portrayed as human shields while on other occasions they are presented as innocent civilians? How does framing civilians as shields operate to legitimise violence? From a different perspective, does volunteering to become a human shield in an attempt to stop state violence constitute a humane or inhumane act? And what does this figure tell us about the broader global history of political violence and the ethical claims mobilised to justify violence?

Our goal, in other words, was not to discover the “origin” of human shielding – since the question of origins is always very tricky, frequently concealing more than it reveals. Instead, we were interested in tracing the emergence of human shielding as a legal, ethical, and political question. We consequently decided to reconstruct a genealogy of human shielding, asking ourselves when did the deployment of vulnerable people as a weapon of deterrence become an issue that disturbed people’s ethical and legal sensibilities?

We begin the story by examining incidents of human shielding during first the American Civil War (1861-65) when the Lieber Code was drafted, and then the Franco-German War (1870-71) which triggered heated international debates about the legality and morality of using human shields. We then went on to chronicle and analyse the mobilisation of involuntary and voluntary human shielding throughout the twentieth century and up until the present day, underscoring how human shields have acquired different meanings and have been deployed in different ways and for different purposes. To do this, we look at colonial wars, environmental struggles, humanitarian wars, the war on terror, and civil protests – including the use of shields to resist state violence in Palestine and in Black Lives Matter protests.

Michelle Bhasin on twitter, 1 June 2020

During our research we discovered that human shields are like a seismograph that registers the ethical, legal and political value attributed to groups of human beings at different historical moments and in different geographical locations. Indeed, an analysis of human shielding helps expose the intricate ways through which class, race, gender and other political constructs have inflected the laws of war, thus providing a vital lens for understanding the global history of political violence.  

Ayça: As you perceptively observe, the figure of the voluntary human shield is ‘inconceivable’ in international law because it jeopardises the notion of the civilian as essentially a passive victim of violence (p.84). Throughout the book, when theorising this figure, you make a distinction between human shielding as a ‘weapon of war’ and as a ‘weapon of peace’. Besides the element of “choice” on the part of human shields (and that may be complicated enough a matter), which ethical, legal, historical, and/or political criteria underwrite the fundamental distinction you assert between these two types of human shielding? How sustainable is this distinction, especially in situations where the meaning, requirements, and even the desirability of “peace” are at stake?

Neve & Nicola: Yes, you are right. We argue that the law’s imagination is, so to speak, limited, and that voluntary human shields destabilise the way in which civilians are usually framed by the law, so much so that such shields are practically inconceivable within existing legal reasoning. Following Helen Kinsella as well as Amanda Alexander, Karma Nabulsi, and Christiane Wilke, we maintain that this is because the civilian is imagined within the laws of war as a noncombatant, a passive (often feminised) figure and an innocent bystander “in need of protection”. Accordingly, the legal distinction between the combatant and civilian is anchored in “agency” rather than “choice”. When civilians challenge their constitutive condition of passivity they are usually framed as combatants. Indeed, the law does not seem to contemplate the possibility that civilians can be active within a war zone without wielding violence and thus becoming combatants.

The same is true about the distinction between voluntary and involuntary human shields: agency is the fundamental difference between the two, and this distinction is crucial for understanding how the law operates. According to the Additional Protocols, involuntary human shields are protected people – civilians or prisoners of war – who are ‘used as shields’. The legal charge against the deployment of involuntary shields arises from the assumption that civilians are passive and that it is wrong to transform them into weapons of war in a coercive manner. Indeed, the power of this legal provision depends on the presupposition of a passive civilian. Enter voluntary human shields, civilians who challenge their legal ascription of passivity, and the law quivers. Simply put, it has no vocabulary to define the status of civilians who use their own bodies to actively resist violence.

The distinction between the two types of shields has to do, on the one hand, with the location of agency, and, on the other hand, with shielding’s relation to violence. Voluntary shields are people who visibly assert their own agency, while involuntary shields are those who ostensibly lack agency and whose body is exploited by an active warring party to advance its goals. Agency, in other words, is located within the voluntary shield, while it acts upon the involuntary shield. Just as importantly, voluntary shields use their body in a non-violent way in an attempt to prevent or stop violence, while involuntary shields are part and parcel of the existing economy of violence.

Thus, while challenging the architecture of the laws of war, the distinction between voluntary and involuntary shields also challenges the ethics of war. It is in this context that we introduce the distinction between ‘weapons of war’ and ‘weapons of peace’.

On the one hand, human shields become a ‘weapon of war’ when violence is deployed by a warring party not only to transform their bodies into a warfare technology deployed to protect a military target, but also to confine them to a framework of passivity. On the other hand, civilians become ‘weapons of peace’ by transforming their own body into a living defensive weapon utilized in a non-violent way to prevent or stop the use of lethal violence. From Maude Royden and the “peace army” she tried to organise in the 1930s to stop the Sino-Japanese war to the Iraq Human Shield Action group and solidarity activists like Rachel Corrie in Palestine, civilians have continuously chosen to use their bodies to oppose war.

However, as we also show in the book – building on the important works of Banu Bargu and Gada Mahrouse – only certain, mostly privileged, groups of people can act as voluntary shields and become ‘weapons of peace’. The point is not only that their lives are seen by the attacking party to matter more than the lives of the people they are shielding and therefore they can, at least potentially, deter the attackers, but also that their agency can be recognised as non-violent. By contrast, the agency of those who are less privileged is almost always deemed violent. Voluntary human shielding thus helps expose how social hierarchies determine the interpretation of the act and how only those who are positioned at the top of the ladder can be recognised as voluntary shields, something we have witnessed time and again in our work in Israel/Palestine where Palestinians are always framed as violent and can only be used as human shields. For them, voluntary shielding is not really an option. This, then, complicates the notion of choice, suggesting that the location of agency and its relation to privilege that determines both the possibility of voluntary shielding and its potential to be successful.

Noura: One of the most striking things I found about your book was how the vignettes unsettle nearly all definitive categories when it comes to human shields. It is as if each instance not only tells us about how privilege, or the lack thereof, inflects the concept of humanity but also how that particular story is historically contingent. Even in your robust answer above, you indicate similar outliers as in Palestine where voluntary shielding is not an option – not for Palestinians, nor often for their white allies. It is the location in Gaza that typically determines culpability rather than passivity, nationality, race, gender, class, or even methods of violence. 

In that spirit, I wonder whether Carl Schmitt’s critique of liberal universalism is sustaining. Is there, in fact, one script for the (former) colonial powers and another for the rest of the world? Is geography determinative? For example, in addition to the combatant and the civilian, there is also the noncombatant figure who assists the war effort but does not take up arms – i.e., the cooks, the drivers, the medics, who should also enjoy immunity. Similarly, the civilian who takes up arms is recognised as a direct participant in hostilities and becomes a target for ‘such time as’ they bear arms, but regains immunity once they put down their arms. Even the combatant soldier who is wounded on land or sea or held as a POW is no longer a legitimate target. Immunity in each of these cases is tethered to military threat, not merely agency: if there is no threat, there is immunity and conversely, if there is a threat, immunity is lost. But as we have seen in Gaza where there is no distinction between noncombatants and combatants, where the temporal scope of direct participation in hostilities is removed, and there is effectively no recognition of legitimate combatants – are there geographic sites where these legal nuances are obsolete? Is Gaza unique in this instance or, in the course of your extraordinary research across time and space, did you find that notwithstanding the achievements of the 1977 Additional Protocols as well as national independence for nearly all of the world’s colonies, colonial geographies remain decisive in determining humanity?

Neve & Nicola: Thanks so much for this, Noura. Rather than being determined, we would argue that colonial geographies are intertwined in a dialectical relation with violence and the law. Thus, it is more a matter of violence and the law shaping colonial geographies and spaces of confinement, while the colonial organisation and compartmentalisation of the world has profoundly influenced the way international law was formulated, as well as how this body of law continues to be interpreted, operationalised and applied. This is one of Tony Anghie’s insights which we have taken to heart.

One could say that Gaza is an extreme contemporary manifestation of some of the historical processes described in Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law. Gaza reveals with particular clarity how violence, law, and colonial geography are mutually constitutive. In 1948, as a result of ethnic cleansing carried out by Israel, this strip of Mediterranean coast was constituted as a refugee space, a space inhabited primarily by people who were expelled or had fled from their homes during the war. As we showed in our previous book, Gaza and Palestine more broadly were reshaped and incorporated into the global order through settler colonial violence, and this turn of events was justified by the victors of World War II as political and legal reparation for crimes perpetrated against Jews on European soil.

Gaza’s Palestinian refugees alongside the region’s original Palestinian inhabitants have since been fenced in, denied sovereignty, and from 2007 framed by Israel as an “enemy entity”, forced to live under an ongoing military siege. Lacking any viable political solution, the only way they can resist the siege while legitimately fighting for self-determination and liberation from colonial domination is by mobilising civilians and establishing an irregular army. Yet these irregular militants, made up in the past by fedayeen belonging to different political factions and today primarily by Hamas’s military wing, have always been cast as terrorists.

Thus, it is not only that colonial geographies help shape international legal hierarchies of humanity, but also that the law helps to produce these hierarchies along colonial – and thus racial, and national – lines. Indeed, Gaza exposes the inherent and unresolved tension informing the 1977 Additional Protocols. On the one hand, the Protocols legitimise armed struggle carried out by irregulars in the context of the right to self-determination and liberation from colonialism. On the other hand, the same Protocols continue to be confined within a state-centric paradigm which privileges state over non-state actors, ultimately outlawing anti-colonial resistance. Indeed, since the Protocols’ ratification, violent resistance – and often non-violent resistance – carried out against the state by non-state actors has consistently been framed as terrorism, particularly in contexts of neo-imperial military occupation and colonisation.  One could say that the irregular within the Protocols is legitimate but not quite.

What happens to non-combatants in such contexts? In Gaza, Israel has denied the civilian population both sovereignty and any possibility of supporting the legitimate struggle for self-determination – including through armed struggle. Israel has placed Palestinians on a humanitarian “diet” by imposing a military siege, and those who dare protest their subjugation become killable or maimable subjects.

Gaza thus reveals how international law traps Palestinians within an impossible binary, condemned to either remain passive colonial subjects or, alternatively, branded as terrorists or people who harbour terrorists. In the book, we show that the shielding accusation plays a central role in policing the borders of this binary. The shielding charge helps cast Palestinian irregulars as barbarians since it ostensibly demonstrates that they weaponise civilians, refusing, as it were, to maintain the moral and legal distinction between civilians and combatants. In-distinction when carried out by a non-state actor is a key mark of terrorism.

Simultaneously, the same charge helps assign guilt for the death of Palestinian civilians to Hamas; Israel claims that even though its soldiers may have killed Palestinian civilians, actually Hamas is to blame because it had illegally coerced those who had died, forcing them to serve as human shields. The Protocols provide a decisive framework that helps sustain this violent colonial condition, since the legal provisions are unable to protect the right of people to engage in anti-colonial resistance, while they clearly stipulate that shields will not render a legitimate military target immune from attack.

During the 2012 war on Gaza, Israel Defense Forces launched an infographic campaign on social media platforms. The campaign focused on human shields and was used not only to accuse Hamas of violating the laws of war, but also to lay claim to a civilisational divide.

John: Apart from the distinction between voluntary and involuntary human shields, another phenomenon that you chart through the book is the evolution of different types of ‘involuntary’ human shields within that particular rubric. One manifestation of this is obviously the difference that emerges between involuntary human shields depending on who is using them. On the one hand, irregular forces or partisans in the context of a people’s war, insurgency against the state or national liberation movement as you’ve just been discussing are portrayed as ‘using’ their ‘own’ communities as shields – whether by deliberately taking cover in or launching operations from civilian spaces, or simply by virtue of living there. On the other hand, we find colonial or occupying forces deploying the bodies of the ‘enemy’ community as (hostage-type) shields when conducting patrols and raids. This was common colonial practice in the British empire (plus more recently in the north of Ireland), and in the book you discuss some continuing examples of Indian forces doing so in Kashmir, Israeli troops when conducting incursions in the West Bank and Gaza, and so on. It is clear that the two are perceived differently due to the distinction that (as yourselves and Noura have alluded to, and despite evolutions in the laws of armed conflict) is still presumed to exist between legitimate state belligerents and subversive resistance forces. State and occupying forces have sought to frame their own human shielding measures as legitimate reprisals or as a necessity of counter-insurgency. Through all this we can hear echoes of the ‘how to fight savage tribes’ canon of racial tropes reverberating in current counter-insurgency practices. 

We also see the impact of lawyers, legal advisors and military manuals, which you cover incisively in the book. And out of that analysis another manifestation of the evolution of involuntary shielding comes up. You show very usefully I think a process where involuntary shielding is steadily expanded to incorporate (or become outgrown by) what you call ‘proximate’ human shields. During the Vietnam war, the US Department of Defense expanded its interpretation of human shielding from the coercive use of a small group of civilians (to shield a specific military target or operation) to the ‘use’ by insurgents of whole villages and towns as shields. By the time we get to northern Sri Lanka in 2009 or Gaza in 2014 or Mosul in 2016, entire urban landscapes or swathes of territory are being characterised by military strategists and international lawyers in these terms, with thousands of civilians being cast as human shields at a given moment. Could you talk us through this process, what you mean by proximate shields and what’s at stake in this development?

Neve & Nicola: Thanks John. As we show in the book, proximity does not refer to civilian populations trapped in a besieged city or near state military forces within a war zone, but rather to civilians trapped in proximity to irregular fighters, who are usually cast as terrorists. This explains the absence of proximate shields in Mosul in 2014, when the city was protected by Iraqi soldiers, and the framing of the same civilian population as proximate shields in 2016, when the city was controlled by ISIS. We also try to explain why this form of shielding has become more prominent in battlespaces around the globe over time – from Africa through the Middle East and all the way to Southeast Asia. Part of the answer clearly has to do with the war on terror and the increasing involvement of nonstate actors in both inter and intra state conflicts. One of the fallouts of the ubiquitous war on terror – that frames multiple countries across different continents as terrorist bases harbouring irregular fighters – is that entire civilian populations are continuously exposed to lethal state violence due to their proximity to military targets. 

Human shields are often produced through acts of framing. ABC News embeds on its website a military clip with the caption: “Drone video appears to show ISIS forcibly moving civilians into a west Mosul home as human shields.”

Yet, in the book we maintain that this has to do also with the intimate relationship between speech, law and violence. The phrase human shields, particularly in its connotation as proximate shield, should be perceived as a performative iteration. We suggest that proximate shielding does considerable legal and political work for those waging the war on terror since, in the very utterance of the phrase ‘human shields’, that which is announced is also enacted, and therefore produces a series of lethal effects.

This is precisely what we saw happening in Mosul in 2016. As we chronicle in the chapter on proximity, in the days leading to the military campaign to recapture the city, Pope Francis expressed his concern about the use of over two hundred boys and men as human shields in the Iraqi city. In a campaign rally the following day, Donald Trump decried the enemy’s use of ‘human shields all over the place’, and the New York Times reported that the Islamic State was driving hundreds of civilians into Mosul and using them as human shields. More and more newspapers picked up the item until it reached the United Nations which ultimately claimed that ‘ISIS is using one hundred thousand civilians as human shields’ in the city. One might say that these utterances helped to transform the city’s entire civilian population into human shields and by so doing they also helped determine the repertoires of violence that would be used in the ensuing military campaign against ISIS. In other words, the pre-emptive iteration – before the fighting in Mosul even began – of the phrase “human shields” served to transform a hundred thousand civilians into killable subjects.

We also suggest that three significant factors have come into play in the recent proliferation of proximate shields. These shields introduce numerical, spatial, and temporal dimensions that do not exist with respect to the two other types of shielding – i.e., voluntary and involuntary – and render this kind of shielding more conducive to those carrying out the war on terror. Numerically, entire urban populations can be framed as proximate shields precisely because the shield is produced through a performative speech act. Thus, no agency by either the belligerents or civilians who are on the ground is needed in order to render the civilians as proximate shield. Thus, through the ongoing citation of the term in press releases or by spokespeople (representing states, militaries, and humanitarian organisations), literally millions of people across Asia and Africa are being framed as proximate shields.

Spatially, the portrayal of a city’s whole civilian population as proximate shields allows the attacking forces to frame huge urban spaces as targets – since by definition human shields protect a legitimate military target. If voluntary and involuntary shields occupy a specific space between a belligerent and its target, proximate shields can be anywhere, and are often everywhere, in a particular urban space.

Temporally, proximate shielding can endure far longer than either voluntary or involuntary shielding, because the latter two are restricted to the time during which the civilian acts or is forced into acting as a shield. By contrast, since proximate shields become shields through performative iteration they can be characterized as shields for days, weeks, and, at times, months on end. Proximate shields can exist as long as urban areas are attacked and the fighting persists.

Crucially, the numerical, spatial, and temporal features characterising proximate shielding expand the ability of a warring party to claim that the civilians it killed were human shields and to assign the ethical and legal responsibility to the enemy.

Noura: I want to build on this by drawing on a resonance I found in your book between Italy’s fascist war against Ethiopia, the US’s imperial war against Vietnam, and Israel’s colonial wars against Gaza. In each of those examples, there was a four-part phenomenon: 1) racialised dehumanisation of the native population; 2) legal manouevres to change the laws of war to accommodate the stronger military’s means and methods of warfare; 3) popular mobilisation of the aggressor’s population in support of the war effort; and 4) deployment of a media strategy to mobilise global support for the tactics of the strong. I have two questions related to this phenomenon and I leave it to you to answer one or both of them. Firstly, related to your point about ‘performative iterations’, in your analysis of US, Israeli, and Italian media interventions, how did their relative prowess on the global scale allow them to shape the media narrative? How much of it was in fact due to the efforts of those belligerents, and how much of it has reflected the complicity of increasingly corporatised media conglomerates who share similar interests with the stronger belligerents and an investment in colonial futures? Secondly, and related to your point about the manipulation of ‘proximate shielding’ that has the capacity to render entire urban areas as legitimate targets, how has the framework of “shielding” effectively subsumed the concept of “people’s war” to the detriment of anti-colonial struggles?  It seems that on some level, any mass mobilisation is now tantamount to shielding, rendering the ability to resist obsolete within the language of law. Was this outcome inevitable or historically contingent?  

Neve & Nicola: Thanks so much, Noura. Your first question relates to a key element that accompanies human shielding accusations both historically and in the present: namely, their continuous iteration in the media. We came across it in pro-fascist newspapers, which during the 1935-1936 Italo-Ethiopian war published caricatures of the ‘savage Ethiopian fighters’ shielding behind Red Cross medical units. We chronicled how in the 1960s and 1970s media outlets in the United States recast popular support for the Viet Cong as an act of human shielding, framing the Vietnamese militants as terrorists who use innocent women and children as human shields. We also analysed a sophisticated infographic campaign launched by the Israeli military media unit and disseminated during the 2012 war on the Gaza Strip through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In this campaign, Israel aimed to produce a civilisational divide between itself and Hamas by depicting the Palestinians as barbarians who ignore the principle of distinction through their continuous deployment of human shields. The history of human shielding is, as you intimate, also a history of its mediation, who controls the media narrative and who has the ability to disseminate their narrative widely.

Fascist Italy developed different forms of propaganda during its 1935-36 war in Ethiopia in an effort to brand the armed resistance as barbarians who ignore the laws of war. In this image, Ethiopian fighters are depicted as using Red Cross medical units as shields.
Source: La Tribuna Illustrata, January 1936.

Building on the work of Judith Butler and Paul Virilio, we show how it becomes unintelligible to distinguish actual acts of human shielding from instances in which civilians are framed as human shields, not least because the act of framing not only produces the perception of human shields, but as a performative iteration it actually creates human shields as such. This is perhaps best illustrated in cases which we call proximate shielding. State actors together with the corporate media have been playing a crucial role in casting civilians as shields, and, as we argue in the book, the shielding accusation and its ongoing citation helps to render the widespread killing of civilians both legal and ethical. Events depicting the weaponization of the human body also attract audiences, and are thus relished by corporate media whose financial model is based on selling large audiences to advertisers. 

While the alignment between state violence and corporate or national media is relatively unsurprising, the role played by human rights and humanitarian NGOs in this process is striking. During our research we came across the increasing and, one might say, astonishing participation of prominent human rights and humanitarian international organisations in framing thousands of civilians as human shields as well. Indeed, organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as several UN agencies have adopted and have often helped produce the same non-critical human shielding narratives that cast whole civilian populations – often tens of thousands of people – as shields in their reports and press releases. Most commentators think of these organisations as restraining and even challenging state violence against non-combatants. However, when it comes to human shields, we witness something different: human rights and humanitarian organisations actually enable violence against civilians by mimicking state and corporate media human shielding discourses. Such interpretations of the battlefield often end up condoning state violence.

As to your second question, you are spot on when you say that the shielding accusation can be deployed to outlaw mass mobilisation of popular resistance. The Vietnam war illustrates this point in a particularly illuminating way. Building on successful anti-colonial resistance against the French colonisers, the Viet Cong adopted the Maoist idea of a people’s war as it mobilised the Vietnamese population against the US occupation. Infiltrating the social body, they promoted cooperation between soldiers and civilians and in this way involved the masses in the anti-imperial war effort. The Viet Cong understood that their forces’ success depended on the guerrillas’ capacity to work together with the people, and so they also intermingled with the rural population like ‘fish in the water’.

The US was intent on undermining the relation between the Vietnamese guerrillas and civilians. When the International Committee of the Red Cross asked the United States to uphold the Geneva Conventions while fighting against the Viet Cong, the Lyndon Johnson Administration invoked the human shielding clause to accuse the Vietnamese enemies of relying ‘heavily on disguise’, including shielding behind innocent civilians. It is striking that almost the exact same script was used by Italy’s fascist regime in Ethiopia thirty years earlier and by Israel when it launched its military campaigns in the Gaza Strip half a century later. In the book, we trace how the Johnson and Nixon administrations attempted to flatten the complex notion of Mao’s people’s war – where, for example, the civilian population participates in the war effort by feeding the fighters, caring for the wounded and sick, and providing the fighters with intelligence – by casting the civilian population as hostages in the hands of the Viet Cong. By accusing the Viet Cong of deploying Vietnamese civilians as shields, the US could then blame the guerrilla fighters for the death of civilians which American forces had killed.

The reduction of a people’s war to an act of human shielding was also used as part of a domestic propaganda campaign aimed at convincing the American public that their military was facing a barbaric human shielding enemy. This frame, that was produced as part of the effort to delegitimise the right of the Vietnamese to resist foreign invaders, was picked up and amplified by the corporate media. This endeavor is paradoxical, given the way in which the American Revolution against the British has been framed as a people’s war, a moral form of resistance that, to this day, is considered a source of national pride. In 1918, photographers Arthur Mole and John Thomas were commissioned by the US military to produce a series of “living photographs”. For The Human US Shield, taken at Fort Custer training center in Michigan, the photographers assembled no less than 30,000 men in military and civilian clothes to form a huge living human shield, which served as a symbol of the people who were willing to shield the US polity against any attack.

Mole and Thomas’s photograph of 30,000 people posing for ‘The Human US Shield’ does not explicitly promote the use of civilians to shield military targets. Yet, given its aim of establishing a sense of unity between the armed forces and the American people, the picture reveals that civilian participation in the war effort was deemed a source of national pride.
Source: Arthur Mole and John Thomas, Library of Congress.

Along similar lines, the contemporary democratic liberal order casts the struggles that created European states during the nineteenth century as people’s wars. The participation of civilians in several liberation efforts, including the partisan wars against the Nazis and the Fascists, have been framed as courageous moral acts, and the notion of the people and the people’s right to resist have been inscribed in the constitutions of countries like Italy and France. Yet when people’s wars were adopted by non-white liberation movements fighting to achieve self-determination in the global south, the concept acquired a completely negative valence aimed at generating moral and legal aversion.

Through this racialised notion of the people, the legal figure of the human shield has become a tool in the hands of powerful states, where it serves as a central component in a lawfare strategy aimed at quelling popular resistance. Human shielding is invoked to deny the colonised the right to engage in people’s wars aimed at achieving self-determination and collective liberation. This can happen not only because, as we discussed above, international law imagines the civilian as passive, but also because it imagines the civilian as an atomised individual and never as a member of a political community – of a people. Indeed, the deployment of the human shielding accusation in anti-colonial and anti-imperial wars shows how international humanitarian law can be mobilised to undermine the fundamental right to self-determination the moment civilians act in concert with an armed group to achieve this right. The right of civilians – not as individuals, but as a collective – to be part of a people’s war is anathema to the laws of war.

John: On the question of ‘voluntary’ shields as a form of activism, one of the things you touch on in the book is how that practice has been effective in certain instances – particularly as an ‘ecotactic’ in campaigns against nuclear weapons, commercial whaling and deforestation in the 20th century environmentalist context – while it has had more mixed results and contingent dynamics in other instances (anti-war activism, racial justice protests, etc). So looking ahead, how might we be thinking about the question of agency in relation to political praxis and social struggles, especially the ecological struggle? Are pro-active human shielding tactics and related forms of direct action adaptable to the strategies needed to combat carbon capitalism and the various forms of imperialism and settler colonialism that it’s bound up with? Can the human shield also be a spanner in the works of pipelines and property, infrastructure and investment? How might the human shield function in conjunction with the street protest, the squatter movement, the sabotage campaign, the hunger strike, the labour strike … class war itself? Can it help to buffer the inevitable confrontations with police, state and law? Do you see the human body itself becoming more (or less?) relevant in emancipatory and existential struggles?

Neve & Nicola: Wow! Those are a lot of questions John. We will limit ourselves to addressing only some of them. Generally, we do not think we can offer a prescription as in ‘human shielding is a good or useful practice of resistance’, since the usefulness of a practice always depends on the context in which it is deployed. In environmental struggles, human shields can reinforce the hierarchy between humans and non-human organisms when the lives of the shields are perceived to be worth more than the life of the organism the shield aims to protect. The notion of the human as the lord of the land is dangerous and ultimately does little to undermine the capitalist system which is threatening to bring an end to all life on this planet. So, there is an anthropocentric risk in environmental human shielding.

But human shields who protect the environment can also help draw a connection between human and non-human life and by so doing can also underscore the dependence of the human on the non-human, thus reconfiguring existing anthropocentric hierarchies. This is how we understand the struggles of the Bishnoi sect in India, which already in the sixteenth century advocated a bodily politics of environmental protection from sovereign dispossession. The same is true for Palestinians who shield olive trees from settler colonialists trying to uproot them. What they are defending is not so much the right to property, but the affective-political relationship between them and non-human elements of the environment, a relationship they call Palestine.

So yes, voluntary human shielding can be practiced as a powerful act of refusal and resistance to capitalist plunder or colonial dispossession. But it is important to keep in mind that voluntary human shielding per se is not emancipatory. The political meaning of voluntary shielding is determined through the relationship between the shield and the target. If a white voluntary shield does not problematise his or her privilege and the political conditions that structure the act of shielding, then the voluntary act might end up reinforcing existing racial hierarchies rather than serving as a force aimed at dismantling them.

This leads directly to the political function of voluntary human shielding in emancipatory struggles. In the book, we reflect on the fact that human shields were called human screens during the First World War. Thus, in the literal sense, human shields serve as a screen or buffer to protect a target, but they can also serve as a screen in the sense of projecting and rendering something visible, like a television screen. In several chapters we show how human shields have helped uncover institutionalised or structural relations of power and violence. Human shields, we maintain, are an effective tool of resistance when they reveal through their bodily interventions the oppressive elements within the existing social order.

We would make one final point on environmental shielding and its ‘revelatory function’. The proliferation of environmental shielding over the past five decades points to the radicalisation of a process. After centuries of unfettered extraction and careless pollution, continued human life on earth is in jeopardy. After we have transformed the environment into a threat, we have to find ways of shielding it before we all die. Voluntary shielding in this context is a form of extinction rebellion.

Ayça: Bearing TWAIL Review readers in mind particularly, I would like to seize this chance to ask you a final, “meta-question” about lawfare, international law, and your careful meditations throughout the book on how international humanitarian law can be detrimental to emancipatory struggles. Apart from humanitarian and human rights organisations that you critique for mimicking human shielding discourses propagated by powerful states, what is your interpretation of democratic, grassroots struggles that increasingly resort to the logic and language of international (humanitarian) law today? Are they misguided, necessary, detrimental, “strategic”, short-sighted, beneficial? Even critical international lawyers tend to refer us to “the context” and/or to the possibility of a “truly universal” international law when assessing the promise of such mobilisations – do you share this view?

Neve & Nicola: Thanks so much for this great final question, Ayça. And thanks, Noura and John for the terrific conversation.

We obviously do not embrace the idea of a “truly universal” international law, since the universal is always contaminated by the particular. Moreover, we do not subscribe to an essentialist or ahistorical notion of either the universal or the law. In fact, we like to think of our book as an exploration of the ways in which the laws of war continue to be contaminated by racist and sexist forms of exclusion. We use the figure of the human shield to explore how international law’s universal pretensions help to conceal and at times even facilitate forms of systemic racism and sexism, while also using the figure of the human shield as a lens to interrogate how the laws are deployed to legitimise state violence against particular groups. Even though we did not have a chance to read Darryl Li’s recent book on jihadists in Bosnia before completing our own, we have done since and we agree with him that since many groups lay claim to universalism, the universal needs to be understood as a plural word and that its use as a singular is a manifestation of power.

Undoubtedly, imperial powers have laid claim to an ethos of universal justice in order to justify oppression and domination, but this does not mean that we must forsake the desire to construct an ‘insurgent universality’, to borrow from Massimiliano Tomba. The wholesale renunciation of both the universal and the law risk replacing one form of essentialism with another form of essentialism, one that insists that certain notions or tools are inherently oppressive. Although every universal has an exclusionary component, in specific historical moments anti-slavery and anti-colonial groups as well as a variety of other social movements have laid claim to a universal to advance a politics of liberation. Context is crucial. Also crucial is the understanding that the universal is always contingent, suggesting, for instance, that human rights should be considered not as some kind of absolute universal reference point or set of categories but rather as a contingent foundation – a site where critical struggles over interpretation of rights, the frontiers of the field and its makeup are constantly taking place. As long as those who deploy the laws of war understand that their pretension to universality is always contingent and that the meaning of these laws is produced through their use, then in certain circumstances they can advance an emancipatory politics.

We are not saying this ingeniously. We realise that the laws of war constitute the civilian as passive and that human rights law constitutes the subject as an individual bearer of rights. We are also keenly aware of the far-reaching implications of the way that these bodies of law imagine and produce subjectivity, as well as how dominant states and other powerful actors tend to control how international humanitarian and human rights law is interpreted and used in the global arena. But history also suggests that the laws can undergo a process of re-interpretation and popular appropriation, and can be re-shaped, even if temporarily, by the oppressed for their own benefit. We do not believe that the political ‘force field’ – to draw on Pierre Bourdieu – of international law should be abandoned, and, in fact, this is one of the reasons we wrote Human Shields.

We cite, for instance, Mohammed Bedjaoui, one of the legal advisers to the Algerian National Liberation Front, who maintained that ‘anti-colonialism’ should become a legitimate part of a ‘universal legal expression’. He is an example of an anti-colonial jurist who tried to avoid the risk of essentialism, while, simultaneously, refusing to dismiss the law’s emancipatory potential.  Indeed, as Luis Elsava, Michael Fakhri, and Vasuki Nesiah have effectively underscored, in Bandung the non-aligned movement tried ‘to both conform and to resignify the language and categories of the international legal order.’ Thus, the challenge, as we see it, is to develop forms of contingent universalism that are able to utilise this kind of anti-colonial energy – an energy that is aimed at fighting a racist conception of humanity in order to produce a new form of humanity, as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire might have put it.

Alas, we live in a different era from the one in which anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements transformed the world. The kind of political force, imagination, and energy that those movements were able to unleash have all but disappeared, even as the racial underpinnings of the colonial order are still very much alive and kicking, and inscribed, as it were, within legal regimes. So, it is still crucial to expose the law’s racial and sexist underpinnings and to identify, if possible, ways of retooling and mobilising the law in the hope of reshaping and ‘remaking’—to borrow from Adom Getachew—a more egalitarian world where people are able not just to survive but thrive.

Take the Palestinian-led international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It is a grassroots movement that aims to bring an end to apartheid and colonialism in Palestine. To achieve its goals, the movement utilises a range of political practices and political registers of justice, and international law is one of them. The movement is conscious of the role international law has played in bolstering and reproducing existing political asymmetries, but it still believes that boycotts, divestments, and sanctions can contribute to achieving an anti-colonial, anti-apartheid, and ultimately anti-racist international legal-political order. BDS is a strategy not a principle, according to the movement’s founders, and the moment that Israel will abide by international law through ending its occupation and colonisation of Palestinian territory, granting equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel and respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return, they will stop advocating BDS. Moreover, the movement’s adherence to international human rights law helps explain why a multitude of political parties, unions, religious and non-religious associations, NGOs, and individuals have joined the movement. Is BDS’s entanglement with international law dangerous? Probably. But is such an approach misguided? We don’t think so. Indeed, the BDS movement has managed to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people around the question of justice in Palestine, to the extent that Israel sees this grassroots social movement as, alongside Iran, its most significant strategic threat. In a certain sense the BDS movement has popularised international law and developed transnational political alliances through this popularisation. TWAIL for the 21st century!