International Law Studies


Few violations of the law of armed conflict (LOAC) are as pernicious as using civilians to shield military objectives from attack. This unlawful tactic unfortunately seems to be an all too common practice of organized armed groups, especially in conflicts against tactically superior conventional state armed forces. The very term "human shielding" presupposes, however, the ultimate objective is to prevent an opponent from attacking the shielded military objective or, in the alternative, substantially complicate that attack decision. But is a shielding effect always the ultimate objective of such civilian exploitation? This article argues that the answer is no; that there is a more aggravated form of "human shielding" that occurs when the party exploits civilians in an effort to "bait" the opponent into launching an attack in the hope that it will actually produce civilian casualties, casualties that can be exploited in the broader "legitimacy battle." Thus, unlike the conduct-based violation of human shielding condemned by the LOAC, this tactic seeks to produce the far more egregious result of civilian casualties by exploiting the attacking force as an "innocent agent" to launch an attack. In this situation, the defending force effectively uses the attacking force to "indirectly" attack civilians by executing an attack on the shielded military objective even though the attack is assessed as lawful. This aggravated form of civilian exploitation is not fully captured by the concept of human shielding. Accordingly, this article argues that more effort needs to be devoted to identifying when and how such "indirect attacks" on civilians can be identified and condemned.