Shielding themselves from politics

The human shield movement looks more like ethical tourism than solidarity.

David Chandler

Topics World

‘I would rather die in defence of justice and peace than “prosper” in complicity with mass murder and war.’

So says former US veteran Ken Nichols O’Keefe, leader of the international volunteer mission of peace activists acting as human shields in Iraq (1). Like other peace activists, O’Keefe has renounced ‘traditional’ politics, arguing that engagement in politics makes people complicit in the evil of governments. He argues that citizens are ‘collectively guilty for what we allow to be done in our name, to both the civilian population of Iraq and to others around the world’.

In interviews, O’Keefe and other human shields stress that they are not taking sides in the coming conflict. This kind of peace activism is a world away from earlier forms of international solidarity, when people were willing to risk their lives for what they believed in – as was the case with the International Brigades who went to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Today’s peace activists have renounced political causes, instead seeking moral redemption in empathy with victims. O’Keefe writes: ‘[W]hen this war finally begins, I will be in Iraq – with the people of Iraq. I invite everybody to join me in declaring themselves not citizens of nations but world citizens prepared to act in solidarity with the most wretched on our planet.’

The human shield concept has been widely popularised through the involvement of international peace activists in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the West Bank. However, when the human shields faced live ammunition their priorities changed. As peace volunteer and international business lawyer Rory Macmillan said, ‘We’ve lost our value as a deterrent against the Israelis maltreating Palestinians. Their soldiers were prepared to fire on our demonstration… and frankly personal safety is now the priority.’ (2) After a few injuries from ricocheting bullets, most of the human shields called on their governments to arrange rapid evacuation.

Despite all the talk of risks, Kate Edwards, a community worker from Manchester in England who was seriously injured in Bethlehem in April 2002, stated: ‘I never thought for a moment that they would fire live ammunition at us.’ (3) Kate just wanted to do something to help the Palestinians, telling a reporter: ‘I have good friends and a comfortable life. I wanted to do something for those who were not as fortunate as me.’

Clearly, the thought of donating money to a charitable cause rather than spending it on a personal foreign adventure never occurred to Kate. It seems that volunteering as a human shield is more akin to ethical tourism than political solidarity.

Despite their charitable intentions, the human shields are often of little help to the people whose struggles they wish to become a part of. According to Kathryn Kingsbury of Madison, Wisconsin, who was surprised by the Israeli army shelling of Beit Jala and forced to take refuge with a local family: ‘Our host was completely concerned about whether we were okay and comfortable, and whether we needed sandwiches or anything else. He and his family have got so used to the shelling and gunfire that they’ve decided normal life has got to just go on.’ (4)

While local people struggled to get on with their daily lives, the human shields were reliant on their support for food and accommodation. As Sarah Irving, a Manchester University MA student in political economy staying with a family in Azar, said: ‘You can’t go anywhere at the moment, it’s too dangerous.’ (5)

The West Bank human shields appeared to be spend Easter 2002 simply holidaying in a war zone. Holding a peace march as Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was creating a military zone was viewed as peculiar by local Palestinians. British writer and comedian Jeremy Hardy, who took part in the march, was shocked when it came under fire. ‘It was a group of people from all different countries chanting and singing’, he said (6). So they were having a great time until the Israeli army ruined all the fun. But even shrapnel in the foot couldn’t ruin the trip for Aisa Kiyosue, a student at Bradford University in England, who said: ‘I still want to stay out here for another week, ‘till my holiday ends’ (7).

It seems that the 200 human shield volunteers in Iraq are motivated by similar desires of exotic travel with an ethical justification. On the bus journey to Baghdad the human shields were entertained by guitarist and songwriter Karl Dallas, in what one journalist called something ‘between a socialist collective and one of those communal college dormitories’ (8).

And it seems that, like many of the human shields in the occupied Palestinian territories, those in Iraq are now getting cold feet as they believe that military action is imminent. According to reports over the weekend, ‘Up to 20 Britons who travelled to Iraq to form a human shield against military action are returning home amid safety fears’.

The problems began when the human shields reached Baghdad. Many were concerned about being placed near potential military targets. It seems that while there was no shortage of volunteers to be based at orphanages, schools, hospitals and old people’s homes, they were less keen to protect crucial civilian infrastructure such as power plants, water purification plants, communication centres and food stores (9).

The Iraqi supervisors have been surprised by the choices made by the human shields. Abdul Razak Al Hashemi, president of the Organisation of Friendship, Peace and Solidarity in Iraq, said: ‘There maybe 40 or 50 children in the orphanage…If you go to a water purification plant instead, that will help many thousands more people – including children – to have clean water to drink. That is a priority. Every house in the area is under threat if the infrastructure is damaged.’ (10)

Some of the human shields are willing to risk protecting essential infrastructure. But it won’t be all work and no play. Ube Evans from Dublin says: ‘We hope to spend the days liasing with the workers at the power plant and integrating with the local community by visiting schools and homes.’ (11)

This desire to take part in the genuine experience of Iraqi and Palestinian people’s suffering comes across in many interviews with the human shields. Ronald Forthofer from Colorado, living the experience with a West Bank family, says: ‘We believe that we who are protected in America should experience and live in the same way that Palestinians are living in the suffering.’ (12) An Australian human shield in Baghdad emphasised the personal nature of the experience: ‘The reason I want to stay is to feel within me what it is like to be under siege. I really want to see what it feels like to feel fear.’ (13)

Rather than demonstrating solidarity with the Iraqi people, it seems that many human shields are attracted by the Iraqis’ suffering. It is little surprise that ordinary Iraqis ‘appear confused’ by the presence of the human shields volunteering to ‘suffer for them’. As the Washington Post reports: ‘When the buses drove through Baghdad to the power plant, with the activists making peace signs and waving “No War” banners they elicited few shouts of encouragement or honking horns in response.’ (14)

The viewpoint of many Iraqis was no doubt expressed by Sabah Hassan, an engineer at the power plant, who said that if the bombs start falling, ‘I will go home. The foreign volunteers can stay’ (15).

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

    • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

    (1) ‘Back to Iraq as a Human Shield’, Ken Nichols O’Keefe, Observer Comment Extra, 29 December 2002

    (2) ‘“I Never Thought They Would Fire Live Rounds”’, Peter Beaumont and Martin Wainwright, Guardian, 3 April 2002

    (3) ‘“I Never Thought They Would Fire Live Rounds”’, Peter Beaumont and Martin Wainwright, Guardian, 3 April 2002

    (4) ‘Foreign Human Shields Stay in Palestinian Towns’, Michael Rose, Reuters, 1 August 2001

    (5) ‘Britons Join 200 in Human Shield’, Peter Beaumont and Martin Wainwright, Guardian, 1 April 2002

    (6) ‘British “Peace Volunteers” Injured in Bethlehem’, Martin Wainwright, Guardian, 2 April 2002

    (7) ‘British “Peace Volunteers” Injured in Bethlehem’, Martin Wainwright, Guardian, 2 April 2002

    (8) ‘Human Shields, No Résumé Needed’, Neil MacFarquhar, New York Times, 20 February 2003

    (9) ‘We Don’t Want to Shield Iraqi Army, say British’, Charlotte Edwardes, Daily Telegraph, 23 February 2003

    (10) ‘We Don’t Want to Shield Iraqi Army, say British’, Charlotte Edwardes, Daily Telegraph, 23 February 2003

    (11) ‘We Don’t Want to Shield Iraqi Army, say British’, Charlotte Edwardes, Daily Telegraph, 23 February 2003

    (12) ‘Volunteers Act as Human Shields’, Ibrahim Hazboun, Associated Press, 2 August 2001

    (13) ‘Human Shields Bed Down in the Target Zone’, Suzanne Goldenberg, Guardian, 24 February 2003

    (14) ‘“Human Shields” Take Stand in Baghdad’, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post, 25 February 2003

    (15) ‘“Human Shields” Take Stand in Baghdad’, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post, 25 February 2003

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

    Topics World


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