The Indian Army is investigating a video that emerged on Friday that depicts a man tied to the front of a military vehicle in Jammu and Kashmir. Aside from a voice on it that can be heard saying “this will be the fate of stone pelters”, there is little clarity on the circumstances of the clip. It is unclear where the video was shot, why the man is tied to the vehicle or how recent the incident was. But it has already made waves, with former state chief minister Omar Abdullah calling it “shocking” and the forces promising an inquiry.
The general presumption is that armed forces have tied a stone pelter to the front of a vehicle to stop protestors from attacking it as it attempts to reach its destination. Another unconfirmed theory, put forward by a journalist from News24 citing Army sources, insists that the incident is a demonstration and that the man tied to the vehicle is a Territorial Army jawan.
So far, the facts of the case have not yet been established. And yet, many people have already concluded that the armed forces are using human shields. Moreover, without yet establishing that this is indeed the case, senior commentators have already said that this is a good idea.
Those are three senior journalists, all editors with their respective organisations, insisting that there is nothing wrong with using human shields – even as, it bears repeating, it remains unclear if that is what is going on here.
R Jagannathan, of Swarajya, asks Abdullah how this is “morally wrong” when stone pelters use children to shield themselves. Sunil Jain, from the Financial Express, says it could be a “low-cost” way to prevent the Army from being stone-pelted. India Today’s Gaurav Sawant said it is “effective.”
How have we come to a situation where senior journalists are already willing to conclude that the state use of human shields is not just acceptable, but desirable?
What are human shields?
International laws originally defined human shields as “using the presence (or movements) of civilians or other protected persons to render certain points or areas (or military forces) immune from military operations”. Over time that definition has grown to also include civilians in non-international armed conflicts.
At its core, the term refers to armed forces using civilians to protect themselves while attempting to carry out an objective. This could be as blatant as strapping a civilian to the front of a military vehicle to prevent attacks. It could also be as complex as ensuring that soldiers are mixed in with civilians on trains heading to or back from conflict zones.
What is wrong with that?
Modern nations operate under the presumption that, in the case of armed conflict, the state must do everything to ensure civilians are not hurt. Human shields, on the other hand, force civilians to face danger, with the aim of reducing the threat to the armed forces. They are almost never voluntary and while they might occasionally work tactically, coercion of civilians into endangering themselves can turn a population against the state.
Is it legal?
The Fourth Geneva Convention, Additional Protocol 1 and the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court all prohibit human shields in armed conflicts, and consider their use a war crime.
The definition and protections given to civilians against being used as human shields have over time been extended to non-international armed conflicts as well. According to the International Committe of the Red Cross, any such practice would be prohibited by the requirement that civilians ought to be protected against the dangers arising from military operations.
The Red Cross goes on to say that human shields in non-international conflicts, if they are non-voluntary, would amount to hostage-taking – which is expressly prohibited – and also flouts the principle of distinction, which obliges states to take feasible precautions separating civilians from the military.
As a result, almost all general legal approaches consider human shields illegal both in domestic circumstances and international conflicts. The only space that is somewhat unclear is when civilians volunteer to be human shields, but even there questions have often been raised about how to test whether a civilian was simply coerced into volunteering for a dangerous operation.
Doesn’t Israel use them though?
Israeli forces have been documented using human shields in their Palestinian operations, including tactics that are similar to the Kashmiri video. In one case, Israeli Defence Forces were accused of tying a 13-year-old Palestinian boy to the front of a vehicle to prevent stone pelting. But even when Israeli forces do it, it is illegal.
The Israeli high court in 2005 banned the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields, saying the country could not “exploit the civilian population for the army’s military needs, and you cannot force them to collaborate.” B’Tselem, an advocacy group that was a petitioner in the case, claims that Israeli forces have continued to use human shields even after the judgment, but the Israeli Defence Forces officially denies that they expose any civilians to attacks.
What about in India?
Human shields also have some history in India, except on the other side. The government has noted the use of human shields, even children, by Maoist extremists. This has also been backed up by organisations like the United Nations, which noted last year that it continues to receive reports of children being used as shields. Kashmiri militants have also been accused of using human shields and the recent tactic of stone peters preventing militant encounters has been seen as an extension of this.
In 2016, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti admitted to seeing human shields being used by the state in the 1990s, a claim that has been levelled in the past but never admitted by senior politicians. Significantly, Mufti said that she campaigned to stop this tactic from continuing. On Friday, after two websites reported her defending the alleged use of human shields in the video above, a state government spokesperson called it “highly unfortunate, severely unethical and grossly irresponsible”. Instead, PTI reported that the Chief Minister’s office has asked for an investigation into the video.