The image of human shields in warfare is stark and deeply unsettling. Innocent civilians, uninvolved in the hostilities, placed directly in the line of fire. Their very lives used as a deterrent against military action

Though not entirely new, this controversial strategy saw a marked resurgence in recent decades. It forced a hard look at the principles and ethics that govern the conduct of war.

Today’s conflicts revolve around urbanized terrains where distinctions between combatants and non-combatants blur. In such environments, deploying human shields becomes a distressingly effective tactic. It complicates military decision-making and stretches the boundaries of international humanitarian law

But what drives an entity—a state or non-state actor—to employ such a morally fraught technique? And how does the international community grapple with the problems it presents?

The Evolution of Human Shields

The Human Shield Action to Iraq crossed the border into northern Iraq from Syria on the 15th of February, 2003 (Wikimedia Commons)

The use of human shields is far from a modern invention. Ancient Assyrian reliefs from the 9th century BCE depict conquered enemies used as shields in front of advancing troops. It was a grim testament to the tactic’s age-old existence. 

Similarly, captured rebels were occasionally displayed on besieged city walls during the Roman sieges. It served as a warning and a protective measure. Such practices meant to tap into an opponent’s humanity, banking on their reluctance to harm the innocent.

From World Wars to the Present

During World War II, the Nazis sometimes employed civilians. They also included prisoners of war as shields to deter Allied bombings or attacks on strategic sites.

Today, the landscape of conflict has further changed. With urban warfare becoming more prevalent, the line between combatant and non-combatant is increasingly blurred.