How to Handle the Use of Human Shields

I often get annoyed when I’m reading newspaper comment sections about military operations, and one of the most common causes is collateral damage. “It’s illegal to kill civilians!!” shrieks some idiot peacenik. Well no, it isn’t. It’s obviously a very bad thing and something to be avoided whenever possible, but it’s not illegal. And usually it’s the enemy’s fault.

The laws of armed conflict are very clear about when it is, and isn’t, acceptable to risk civilian casualties. You can’t directly target civilians; that one is pretty obvious. You can’t blow up stuff that will have a catastrophic effect on civilian populations either. That means the Dambusters raid might have been an incredible act of heroism in 1943, but today it would be rather naughty.

Where it gets complicated is where there’s a legitimate military target with civilians close to it, within the area likely to be damaged in an attack. Despite what a lot of people on the political left seem to think, it isn’t illegal to take the shot if civilians might become casualties; otherwise anybody cynical enough to have a civilian sitting on every tank could conquer the world without a shot being fired at them.

Fighters ISISWhat international law says is that any potential civilian casualties have to be in proportion to the military value of the target. It’s not OK to cluster-bomb an entire village because a low-level Taliban member lives there – but it is OK to launch a Hellfire at a senior commander’s car if you’re not sure who else is in it with him. The risk of killing innocent passengers is proportionate to the value of taking out one of the enemy’s key players.

There’s another aspect to civilian casualties that’s often overlooked, too. Any combatant has responsibilities to civilians in the territory they control, and those responsibilities include not exposing them to risk of attack. If you put a weapons dump in a school, and then a hundred children die when the school is hit, guess whose fault that is? Yep, it’s yours. If you hide your assets among civilians you take responsibility if those civilians die.

Recently, the media has been reporting that ISIS extremists, worried by the threat of air attack, have been shaving their beards (at least I hope it’s their beards) and moving into civilian homes in an attempt to avoid targeting. That leaves the west – and Russia – with two choices: Stop hitting them, or run the risk of collateral damage. In today’s media-infested environment, that’s an even tougher choice than it would be normally; but, in the end, there’s only one option – as unpleasant as it is, we have to keep striking them. If we don’t, it sends the message that we’re now weak enough to be defeated by cynical and illegal human shield tactics; that adversaries can attack us then avoid retribution by hiding in someone’s house. And, if we do that, we might as well run up the jihadist flag ourselves and save ISIS the bother.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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