|By Robert Block
The world saw human shields on television when in the events preceding the Gulf War, the Iraqi government seized foreign nationals in both Iraq and Kuwait and held them at strategic and military installations. This is a most obvious case of using civilians as hostages or human shields to attempt to prevent an attack.
International humanitarian law (IHL) prohibits parties to conflict from using civilians to shield military objectives or military operations from attack. But armies and irregular forces use innocent civilians as human shields in conflicts all over the world. Often, they do it in a manner that, unlike Iraq’s blatant example, is not instantly recognizable.
Two such cases occurred in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in mid-1994, when more than 1 million people fled to Zaire and lived in the squalor of refugee camps. Some did not go back because of their role in the slaughter by an extreme nationalist Hutu regime of as many as 1 million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Others feared that Rwanda’s new pro-Tutsi rulers would be unable to distinguish the guilty from the innocent who fled Rwanda in the final days of that country’s civil war. But many others wanted to take a chance and go home where they had families and fertile land. They were not allowed to. Although considered refugees by the international community, they saw themselves as prisoners of those who ran the camps.
Marie Akizanye was forty-three years old in 1996 at the time she fled the Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire but looked twice her age. Her face was like dried-out leather. What little remained of the hair beneath her scarf was almost white, while her eyes were yellowed and glassy.
“We wanted to come back to Rwanda, but in the camp there were people who stopped us. They had guns and machetes and they threatened us with death if tried to come back,” she said. “They told us that one day we would all go back together by force and they set up military bases among us to attack the enemy.”
Indeed, between August 1994 and November 1997, the remnants of the armed forces of Rwanda and the dreaded Interahamwe militias still loyal to the defeated extremist regime of President Juvenal Habyarimana used the refugee camps in Zaire as a staging ground and launchpad for attacks into Rwanda. The extremists would stage raids into Rwanda from the camps and then seek refuge back there, using the refugees as shields from counterattacks. When the camps were broken up by a combined force of Rwanda’s new Tutsi-dominated army and Zairean rebels, proof emerged of plans for a massive military invasion of Rwanda from the refugee camps.
Under international law, parties to a conflict must keep military assets as far as possible from concentrations of civilians. It is also a crime of war to use any civilians as a human shield. According to Article 51 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions: “The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objects from attacks or to shield, favor or impede military operations.”
The second example occurred in 1997. Zairean rebels fighting to overthrow the government of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko often complained that when they approached groups of Rwandan refugees who were then fleeing Zaire’s civil war, they were often fired upon by armed elements hiding among the civilians. This fact was in turn used as an excuse by the rebels to indiscriminately attack refugee areas, often massacring hundreds of women, children, and elderly—clearly illegal under IHL.
Some cases are not so cut-and-dried.
One such incident took place in El Salvador in March 1984. Under attack for its appalling human rights record, and unable to convince the world that it was waging a righteous struggle against Communist insurgents, El Salvador’s military was searching for an incident to bolster its case before upcoming elections.
The army’s prayers appeared to have been answered one Monday evening outside the small town of San Antonio Grande when rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) attacked a train traveling from the town of San Vicente in the west of the country to the capital, San Salvador.
The railway line cut though the heart of guerrilla territory. Trains plying this route were regularly fired upon or blown up. But these were always cargo trains, usually carrying supplies for the military or the businesses of the army’s wealthy patrons—clear military objectives. This time, however, the train was full of civilian passengers.
Eight people, including women and children, were killed and dozens wounded. Here at last was the “proof” of what the Salvadoran Army had contended all along: that its enemies were war criminals with no regard for human life. An attack that does not distinguish between military objectives and civilians is a war crime.
The foreign press was summoned to the site the next morning by the Salvadoran military. Inside the train, the bodies of two men, four women, and a child were lying in a pool of congealed blood underneath wooden seats on the floor of a railway carriage. They had been left where they fell, untouched for fifteen hours so reporters could broadcast the guerrillas’ deed to more dramatic effect.
Outside, a young woman was on her knees, rooted to a spot where she had collapsed. She was bent over the body of a small boy, resting her head on the back of one hand, while the other clutched at her breast as if trying to tear her own heart out. She wailed, pleading to God for her little son’s life while damning the guerrillas. Her cries went out over the airwaves as well.
This, an army spokesman announced with enthusiasm, was proof of the barbarity of the guerrillas. But upon talking to survivors another picture, different from what the Salvadoran Army wanted us to believe, began to emerge.
According to the engineer, the rebels had brought the train to a halt after two mines went off on the track. The rebels had then demanded the surrender of a detachment of soldiers and five thousand rounds of ammunition that were in the last car. The soldiers had refused and a firefight ensued. Surviving passengers said that when the FMLN attack intensified the soldiers had taken refuge in their carriage, shooting at the attackers while hiding behind the civilian passengers for protection. It was then that people were killed.
Not wanting the bodies of its troops to be seen lying alongside those of civilians in a passenger carriage, the army removed the soldiers’ corpses long before journalists arrived.
Despite the survivors’ story it is unclear whether the soldiers had rushed to the passenger area to use civilians as shields—clearly a war crime—or fled that particular car because they thought it was the best place to take cover, thereby committing no violation of law.
Whatever the truth, in the television propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the world, it was the guerrillas of FMLN and not the Salvadoran Army who lost sympathy points that day.