US War Manual Clarifies Rules on Human Shields

A new version of the Defense Department’s Law of War Manual, released Wednesday, clarifies protections for civilians used as human shields on the battlefield. The document includes new language requiring that, in targeting enemy combatants, “feasible precautions must be taken to reduce the risk of harm to human shields.” These precautions apply to questions of proportionality, or “determining whether a planned attack would be excessive,” which can decide whether or not the US military conducts airstrikes in certain cases. While the manual states that, “the party that employs human shields in an attempt to shield military objectives from attack assumes responsibility for their injury,” it also cautions that, “the attacker may share this responsibility if it fails to take feasible precautions.” In recent battles for Mosul, Iraq, and Manbij, Syria, ISIS has employed human shields to protect its fighters from US airstrikes, and in some cases civilians have been involuntarily enlisted as human shields. According to the new rules, both voluntary and involuntary human shields “would not be considered to be directly participating in hostilities” and would be protected from attack, writes Jennifer O’Connor, General Counsel for the DOD, in a paper commenting on the new manual.