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On Human Shielding

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - OHS (On Human Shielding)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2019-08-31

This project examines the history and contemporary politics of human shielding, a growing phenomenon related to the increasing “weaponization” of human bodies in contemporary warfare. In international humanitarian law (IHL) and military literature human shielding generally refers to the deployment of civilians to deter attacks on combatants or military sites as well as to their transformation into a technology of warfare. The current significance of human shielding both as a military instrument and as a legal category cannot be overstated given that urban settings have become decisive arenas of many contemporary conflicts. From the Sri Lankan civil war and the Israeli siege on Gaza through the multiple chapters of the War on Terror to the protests in Standing Rock North Dakota, accusations concerning the use of human shields as a means of protection, coercion or deterrence have multiplied over the last decade. Indeed, the dramatic increase of urban warfare, including insurgency and counterinsurgency, terrorism and counterterrorism, inevitably entails that civilians are caught in the front lines of the fighting, while the distinction between civilians and combatants is constantly blurred.

This, in turn, spurs a series of moral dilemmas of urgent social and political relevance relating to the deployment of violence. On Human Shielding tackles an urgent and proliferating phenomenon related to contemporary conflicts, and develop—new knowledge on violence and IHL. To accomplish this goal, OHS investigates how the category human shield is progressively transforming our conception of what a civilian is in war and our understanding of contemporary conflicts.

The project has two overall objectives. The first is to outline the development of the human shield category in IHL, tracing the historical events—with particular focus on European wars both on the continent and in the colonies—and the legal debates leading to the consolidation of this concept within the legal sphere. The second objective is to identify and theorize the various forms of human shielding in order to improve our understanding of the diverse situations in which human shields appear in contemporary conflict zones and the way they shape our understanding of war.

The project produced the first ever reconstruction of the history of human shields. Over the last 150 years, human shields have acquired multiple political and ethical meanings. They have emerged as a key figure of international law, one that is increasingly marshalled to legitimize the use of lethal violence trapped in war zones. Simultaneously, human shields have appeared in unexpected sites such as anti-nuclear struggles, civil and environmental protests, exposing how forms of violence used by militaries in foreign conquests are migrating into the civil sphere. Ultimately, the history of human shielding is a history of how the human body has been weaponized to advance domination as well as resistance, and serves as an effective prism for interrogating the ethics of violence.
The preparatory phase of reading and identification of the archival sources on human shielding and the choice of historical and contemporary cases of human shielding was completed in months 1-3. This allowed the PI to develop an outline of the chapters for the book manuscript for which he got a contract in month 7 with University of California Press and choose which papers to develop for publication in high rank journals. The research in the European and extra-European historical archives, as well as the analysis of military manuals, NGO reports, and cases laws was completed in months 1-12. The research allowed the PI to deepen the knowledge of the history of human shielding and gather the key materials for writing the 4 articles and 2 book chapters published throughout the action, as well as the book manuscript under contract. Archives included: the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross; the Library of the Congress; the British governmental archives and press on the Second Boer War; the Italian colonial archives and press on the Second Italo-Ethiopian War; the French, British, and Belgian archives on World War I; the US government archives and the press archives on the Vietnam War; the British and Israeli archives on Israel/Palestine. Military manuals: the PI conducted research on the figure of the human shield and how it is treated in military manuals of different countries (United States, United Kingdom, Germany France). NGO reports: the PI conducted research on the reports published by different international NGOs, humanitarian and human rights organizations (among them United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch) and how they deal with cases of human shielding. Research visits were carried out in Israel/Palestine in months 12 and 23. The visits allowed the researcher to gather research materials on human shieling in the area (which constitutes one of the key cases in different chapters of the book manuscript) and discuss them with different legal and political actors. Research results and dissemination: 4 academic articles published in high rank journals; 2 book chapters; and 1 book manuscript—Human Shields. On the Weaponization of Bodies—under contract with University of California Press (forthcoming 2020). The PI published also 7 opinion pieces and articles in leading news and academic blogs to diffuse the research results to a broad extra-academic audience. In addition, the PI organized 3 inter-sectoral symposia at the University of Edinburgh and London (Politics in the Face of Death and The Erosion of the Civilian 1 and 2) in which the research results were shared and discussed with scholars, human rights and legal experts, scholars-activists. More than 10 public talks, guest lectures, and conference presentations were delivered throughout the 2 years. Finally, since August 2019 the research project website, the Archive of Human Shields, is online.
My book Human Shields. On the Weaponization of Bodies (forthcoming in 2020 with University of California Press) is the first book ever written on the topic of human shields and is the first attempt to try to understand the inner workings of the laws of war and the ethics of violence through the legal figure of the shield. Given the multifaceted methodology and broadness of the historical framework I adopt in the book, the press expects the book to be read in different disciplines and academic contexts (from law schools, to politics, international relations, history, philosophy, media, geography, war studies, department). As a recognition of the originality and potentiality of the book, UCP has decided to offer me a contract to sell the book as trade-book, an indication that my research will be read also by a non-academic audience. I expect the book to generate interesting and controversial debates both in the academia and outside the academia, including the world of human rights, legal, and military experts, as well as policy makers.

As further recognition of the innovativeness of my research, the European Journal of International Law dedicated a special debate to “‘Hospital Shields’ and the Limits of International Law,” (Volume 30, Issue 2, Pages 439–463), my article on the relationship between the history of human shielding and the history of the use of hospitals as shields for military activities in armed conflict.
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