Human Shields, a New Form of Life Worthy of Life Only as a Potential Death

A person forced to be a human shield is transformed into a counter weapon, a target and a possible expendable body by the wagers of war.

Human shield in Palestine and Kashmir. Credit: BBC/Video screengrab

Human shield in Palestine and Kashmir. Credit: BBC/Video screengrab

Conditions of war and civilian strife, whether in Mosul or in Kashmir, generate forms of life, like human shields, where life loses its form altogether.

The controversial strapping of Farooq Ahmad Dar to an Indian army jeep in Kashmir has, understandably, aroused passions, generated legal debates and ignited controversy. It was the army, the official wing of the Indian state, appropriating an unarmed civilian for the ostensible purpose of thwarting rioting Kashmiris that has raised the hackles of all (or almost all) parties.

The use of human shields is not, however, new. It dates back, according to military historians, to the American Civil War, and is now an established part of warfare around the world. UN documents, such as the Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (2009), cite instances in the Gaza area. But years before Gaza, it was already commonplace enough for the emendations to the Geneva Conventions to institute a formal rule (Additional Protocol I, Article 51.7) on the subject.  India is a signatory to the Conventions, but not to the Additional Protocols, though the prohibition on the use of human shields is considered today a customary norm of international law.

Despite international outrage over the decades, the involuntary human shield is literally now at the forefront of battles.

Rachel Corrie was an American member of the International Solidarity Movement. She was crushed to death in the Gaza Strip by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer when she was kneeling in front of a local Palestinian’s home. Credit: Denny Sternstein.

The human shield represents a bio-political turn in warfare. When it is voluntary, it constitutes an extraordinary form of resistance, pitting one’s body against the violence of the state, placing it at risk in ways that are unimaginable. The American college student Rachel Corrie, who was crushed under an Israeli army bulldozer razing Palestinian dwellings in Rafah, Gaza, in 2003, because she was using herself as a shield against the demolition, would be a case in point. Just as in the case of non-violent resistance, embodied in satyagraha, for example, the voluntary human shield “uphold[s] the specifically political meaning and value of human life… they mobilise the full political potential of life”, as Banu Bargu put it. It constitutes, she argues in Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons, a “weaponisation of life“.

But what of the involuntary human shield, employed by militants, political rulers and army personnel alike?

The human shield is a new form of life, born in the most horrible of all crucibles, war and civil unrest: life born in killing zones.

Traditionally, human shields have been employed to put pressure on the attackers’ moral scruples against injuring civilians and unarmed combatants. In order to advance, the attackers would have to commit a war crime by injuring civilians, notes Michael Skerker. Weaker armies, writes Michael Schmitt in his study of the legal issues around the horrific phenomenon, employ human shields “as a “method of warfare” designed to counter attacks against which they cannot effectively defend using the weaponry and forces at their disposal”. This new form of life, then, is a moral instrument of war. It is transformed from a human into a counter weapon, a target and a possible expendable body by the wagers of war. In terms of the lethality of warfare, human shields simply represent the blurring of lines between combatant and non-combatant, for the shield as a device for averting attack is a non-combative combatant for the attacker.

In her talk on the subject, Judith Butler proposes that all civilian populations are definitely rendered into human shields in wartime, but increasingly also in peacetime – when civil protections are withdrawn in the name of security measures and even unarmed bodies  are perceived and treated as potential weapons. Her examples are the shootings of unarmed African-Americans in the US. If so, a new form of life, evaluated only in terms of their threat potential, is evolving in the surveillance-security culture of the contemporary. Humans have evolved enough to make weapons and, now further, to weaponise humans.

A form of torture

In other words, the human shield is a form of life whose only form is biological and expendable as a mode of protecting other lives, territories or even armed forces. The human shield is, ironically, life worthy as life only in that it is a potential death. Even more ironically, both sides engaged in conflicts – the militants and the state, armies on either side of a war – exhibit similar attitudes towards the lives they are supposedly guarding (the army/state) or whose interests they are representing (the militia/militants). Butler, in a talk at the London School of Economics, rightly foregrounds the embodied nature of the horrific event: it is a living, unarmed body that is placed, usually by those who are armed, at the forefront of risk, of lethal situations and in the line of fire/attack.

The involuntary human shield is a ‘person’, but only partially so, since he can only use his body without agency. Restricted to buildings (as ISIS did in Mosul) or installations or, as recently seen in Kashmir, to a vehicle, the person is no longer a person but a fleshly target who can either be shot or avoided altogether. The person himself cannot take either evasive or offensive action. In effect the human shield is reduced to mere flesh. Jean Améry famously said in his autobiographical On Torture that torture reduces the human to the body:

“Only in torture does the transformation of the person into flesh become complete. Frail in the face of violence, yelling out in pain, awaiting no help, capable of no resistance, the tortured person is only a body, and nothing else beside that.”

The human shield is meat – flesh without agency – a form of life that is now famously identified as ‘bare life’ after Giorgio Agamben. But this is not all.

This form of life is exposed to the world in the form of possible death. It is the constant, insistent exposure to death, an exposure over which the person has absolutely no control, that marks life and the living. In effect, being a human shield is akin to torture because, as Améry, among others (notably, Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain) notes, in torture, one never knows when, or from which direction, the next blow will come. She cannot predict when the next torture session will be. Time ceases to matter, as a consequence. The human shield can always await the bullet or the stone, but can never be not surprised when, or if, it comes.

Rather than a productive instrument for living – which implies agency – the human shield, like the slave, makes her body the instrument of use by the captors. This instrumentalisation is itself the agential act of somebody else, the captor, who now becomes the master to the human shield, the slave. The slave is one who has no ownership of her body because she can only use the body as an instrument when ordered and ordained by the master. Tied by the soldiers to their jeep, Dar was instrumentalised as a potential target and had no other agency.

Except in the case of a slave, a human who uses her body directed at a particular end, is rewarded. Wages are a recognition of the work done as labour. The slave’s work is only an instrumental use of her body and is not labour, as Agamben proposes in his recent workThe Use of Bodies. Since the slave’s body is owned by the master, the slave’s body need not be compensated for its work. The human shield, rendered into such a form of life, is not recognised as being anything other than a target, a weapon of sorts, and so is not deemed to be entitled to rewards.

The human shield reduced to meat is what allows the master class, those who strapped them down, to be properly alive. That is, only when they have cast somebody else as the human shield can they hope to stay human and living. It is the conversion of another person into disposable life that allows the army or the militant to stay alive. Their life depends on taking ownership of another’s life and rendering it just a living body.

A body, not a life

To have life, is to have a form-of-life, argues Agamben. This involves the potential and possibilities of life. Without potential, there is only the fact of life, living but not life. The human shield has no form of life, although there is the fact of life, a biology.  For the period of time s/he is a human shield there is no potential or possibility of her/his life except death. The value of the human shield’s body does not inhere in what it can do, achieve or fulfil (as promise, as potential), but in what it can do for the ones behind it.

The United Nations warned ISIS would use civilians as human shields as they retreated from the northern Iraqi town of Mosul. Credit: Reuters

In the case of the human shield, the forms of life include being tied down and exposed to death, and therefore prevented from cohering into a form of life, except as potentially dying. It is not adequate to argue that the human shield is only bare life and therefore without a political life. Rather, it is the human shield qua bare life that energises the political life of others, of an army, a militia, a community and even the state itself. No different from the hostage sequence in heists and robberies, the human shield has political value as potentially dying.

The human shield is a form of life that embodies a ‘target of opportunity’: one who is not intended to be a target, but simply happens to walk into the ‘scope’ of the telescopic sights of the gun. The human shield arrives, or is located (immobilised), at a particular place at a particular time and is transformed into a target in the eyes of the shooter. This is skopos – where a system of monitoring and organisation prepares the ground for the singularity of the shooting: guns are trained at possible targets – and the human shield enters this skopos. The ‘scope’ of the telescope/rifle/camera is already, or will be, trained on the particular spot where whoever turned up, as a singularity, would become the victim. When the human shield arrives at a particular spot or space, she is rendered helpless, because that spot or space is so structured as to turn any life form into a scoped object.

Indeed the human shield as a scoped object, a target of opportunity, is what allows and enables somebody else to be a sovereign form of life, to achieve a culmination and a telos (the opposite of skopos, in Samuel Weber’s and others’ readings). The army officer or the militant functions as sovereign life form precisely because he has rendered somebody else a non-sovereign target.

Now the question is: if Major Leetul Gogoi had tied an Indian army man to the jeep, would that person be an effective human shield or would he have been shot/stoned by protestors? If the protestors use one of ‘their’ people or an Indian army man as a human shield, would these have the same function in thwarting attacks or protests? If in Mosul, instead of the locals as human shields, ISIS used Red Cross volunteers, would it be different? It is the structure of conflict that renders humans as fungible human shields: humans who are supposedly moral deterrents but targets all the same. Humans could be interchangeable in this role, one defined by the very nature of bio-political war that no longer stays confined to the armed forces but renders all humans, including civilians, as potential human shields, as Butler argued.

Sovereign and meaningful lives, then, depend on the dehumanisation of other lives in these new forms of warfare. It is not that soldiers and policemen do not have human rights – when they are dehumanised, the law, the state, the civil society must­ protest and seek legal remedies and punishments. The converse is also true. When the state perceives and represents the human rights field as a security threat, makes human shields of the very civilians it is mandated to protect and then seeks to restrict the work of human rights campaigns through legal measures, such as the foreclosure of funding, as we have seen with Greenpeace and will no doubt see in the case of Amnesty, then we are in the midst of a new political moment. A structural shift – termed ‘lawfare’, a combination of law and warfare – is perceivable.

The question is not why certain people in power – such as Major Gogoi – behave this way. The ‘few bad apples’ argument from Abu Ghraib can no doubt be used. The question rather is: what institutional, social and political mechanisms allow, indeed encourage, them to do so. It is not a few bad apples; it is the team of gardeners of the orchard.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.

  • alok asthana

    The last paragraph is a good summary – ‘The question is not why certain people in power – such as Major Gogoi – behave this way. The ‘few bad apples’ argument from Abu Ghraib can no doubt be used. The question rather is: what institutional, social and political mechanisms allow, indeed encourage, them to do so. It is not a few bad apples; it is the team of gardeners of the orchard.’ —
    The biggest culprits are the COAS, Raksha Mantri and all those who approve of this.