Amid news that terrorist group Hamas is using civilians as a cover for military assets in its recent crossfire with Israel, a new report urges Canada to pass laws aimed at sanctioning the use of “human shields.”
Released by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) and the Canadian Coalition Against Terror (C-CAT), the report says the use of humans as shields by terrorist groups can effectively lower the efficacy of militaries from democratic and law-abiding countries.
“Combatants who use humans as shields are giving priority to defeating the perceived enemy over protecting their own civilian population. The combatants are making the statement that hatred of the perceived enemy means more to them than the lives of their own people. Combating the use of human shields means combating this hatred,” the report says.
“The use of civilians as human shields has only been growing, and this is a real challenge for rights-respecting, democratic states that aim to combat terrorism while protecting and safeguarding human life.”
Besides Hamas, other terrorist entities that use this tactic include ISIS, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and Houthi in Yemen.
“These groups have used tens of thousands of civilians, and indeed entire population centres, for this purpose,” says the report, titled “Protecting Innocents in Combat.”
Co-authored by MLI senior fellow Sarah Teich and C-CAT founder Daniel Eisen, the report provides an overview on the pervasive use of human shields and the international efforts to deter it. It proposes draft legislation for Canada’s Parliament to consider, which, along with sanctions, includes “naming and shaming” perpetrators.
In a news release announcing the release of the report, Eisen noted that the rights-violator list also includes state entities like Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which in January 2020 shot down Ukrainian Airlines Flight PS752, claiming 177 lives, including 55 Canadian citizens and 81 permanent residents.
“This use of commercial air traffic as a form of human shield by Iran is entirely consistent with the regime’s multi-billion-dollar sponsorship of terror proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah which are amongst the globe’s most egregious perpetrators of human shields-related violations,” Eisen said.
Banned Under International Law
According to the report, terrorist groups may seek to maximize the death toll of civilians used to shield a military objective, because they will then be able to shift the blame away from themselves in a court of law. This is a strategic “win-win” for the rights violators, as they are also “manipulating democratic legal systems in an effort to undermine, defame, and delegitimize the counterterrorism or military efforts of democracies.”
The use of human shields is universally banned under international law and has been explicitly condemned by international organizations such as the United Nations Security Council and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
However, the laws of war—the part of international law that regulates the conduct of warring parties—do not strictly prohibit the killing of human shields if the loss of civilian life is not excessive compared to the military advantage anticipated, as stated in Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Convention. The report says this implies legality in the use of human shields, which would likely make the practice even more common.
The report also found a lack of a follow-up in domestic legislation against the use of human shields, despite international prohibition of the practice being adopted as early as the 1949 Geneva Convention.
The first domestic legislation aimed at sanctioning the crime was signed into law by former U.S. president Donald Trump in December 2018. The “Sanctioning the Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act” (“U.S. Human Shields Act”) specifically targets terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah for mandatory sanctions, and permissive sanctions for all other foreign individuals and entities that employ this military tactic.
As NATO launches an initiative to highlight and take action to deter the use of human shields, there is a “pressing need” for countries like Canada to show leadership on the issue, the authors said.
“What we establish in this publication is the need and ability for Canada, as a human rights leader, to heed international consensus, answer NATO’s call to action, and pass legislation to deter and sanction the use of human shields,” Teich said.