n Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa - Voluntary human shields : status-less in the crosshairs?

Volume 40, Issue 3
  • ISSN : 0010-4051



Recent hostilities have witnessed the unprecedented involvement of voluntary human shields (VHS). As international humanitarian law (IHL) stands at the moment, VHS find themselves in the theatre of war without authorisation to participate in hostilities and accordingly enjoy no special protected status as combatants, non-combatants or civilian contractors. Current IHL does little but presume that VHS retain their civilian status until a competent tribunal dictates otherwise. I argue here that the status afforded VHS's turns very much on the hotly contested notion of what exactly amounts to impermissible direct participation in hostilities. This notion of direct participation is informed to a large extent by the sites (military, civilian or dual use) which the VHS are found to be shielding. I conclude that whatever finding a competent tribunal might reach, IHL law demands that VHS who are captured be treated humanely in accordance with basic fundamental guarantees. Where VHS are found to have been participating directly in hostilities without authorisation, they might be held to account for their unauthorised actions.

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