The Human Shield Movement


On
a bright afternoon in January, a convoy of three double- decker
buses left London for Baghdad in a blaze of media coverage. On board
were over 50 human shields; the first of many hundreds of Western
anti-war activists to travel to Iraq. None of them knew what the
coming months would hold. All knew that they might not be coming
back. 

It
had all started just three weeks before with an article in the London
Observer in which a former Marine, Ken O’Keefe, outlined
his intention to organize a human shield convoy to try and stop
the rush to war. A small group of people who had read the article
met with O’Keefe. With troops already massing in the Gulf,
it was clear that time was of the essence. A convoy would take at
least two weeks to drive overland to Iraq and therefore a departure
date was set for January 25. 

It
would be necessary to get funding, vehicles, publicity, visas and
most importantly, volunteers willing to leave their homes and families
at short notice and gatecrash the theatre of war. 

Remarkably
all this was achieved. Buses were procured and painted, a website
was set-up and human shield volunteers started to come forward.
There were press conferences and delegations to Downing Street and
interviews with every major news network in the world. 

As
the buses crossed Europe picking-up more shields en route, efforts
were made to capitalize on the publicity and ensure that the human
shield project was broadened. An office was set up in Amman and
two more groups of shields flew from London to Iraq via Jordan.
The week after the convoy’s departure there were over 60,000
hits on the human shield website and over 1,000 enquiries about
becoming shields. Human shield organizations sprouted around the
world in France, Italy, Spain, Slovenia, America, Australia, India,
South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, New Zealand, Korea, and Japan. 

The
convoy encountered numerous difficulties; mechanical and logistical
problems were compounded by stormy clashes of personality. Despite
the difficulties, the convoy rolled into Baghdad to a tumultuous
welcome. Once there, however, further tensions arose, this time
with their Iraqi hosts. Sites for the shields deployment had not
been determined prior to the shields’ arrival and it soon became
apparent that sites would be selected by Iraqi government officials
wary of infiltration by Western spies. After two weeks of heated
discussion, the shields were given a list of seven sites and an
ultimatum to “start shielding or start leaving.” The sites
were all civilian infrastructure facilities including water treatment
facilities, power stations and food silos, and were fully in keeping
with the expressed objective of the shield group. 

The
need to work closely with the Iraqi government was not something
many of shield volunteers felt comfortable with. Some felt that
the list delivered by the officials compromised their autonomy.
Others felt that they would rather be deployed in schools, hospitals,
and orphanages. These shield volunteers left Iraq. The rest took
up residence at the sites, a list of which was sent to the Joint
Chiefs of Staff together with a request that they recognize that
targeting these sites would be in violation of Article 54 Protocol
Additional to the Geneva Convention. There was no response to the
letters and in the early hours of March 18, the Al Durah power station,
home to 23 shield volun- teers, was hit by a bomb. 

At
its peak the total of shield volunteers in Baghdad numbered about
500, but the realization that the thousands needed to have a chance
of stopping a blitz on Baghdad had not materialized, combined with
the failure of the United Nations to forestall war, meant that bombing
was imminent. Many of the shields chose to stay; many others chose
to leave. Still others, like O’Keefe, were ordered out by the
Iraqi government. In an ironic and tragic twist, 21-year-old human
shield, Tom Hurndall, left Baghdad for reasons of safety. He went
to Palestine where he was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper
while working with the International Solidarity Movement.  

As
war drew nearer, the British media started to become more critical.
The list of sites where the shields were to be deployed were frequently
described as “military installations” and, while stories
of shields leaving Iraq were widely reported, the fact that a substantial
number remained and that new shields were joining them daily, was
ignored. On March 3, BBC news ran a story on the double-decker buses
leaving Baghdad, “filled with last disillusioned human shields.”
In reality, there were total of 4 people on the buses and over 150
shields still in Baghdad. Approached with a story about shield volunteers
taking up residence in a food storage facility, one journalist responded:
“Human shields? We’re bored of them. Call me when one
of them gets killed.” 

Fortunately
none of the 80 shields who stayed in Baghdad throughout the war
were killed or injured. None of the sites where they were residing
were destroyed. They were afforded freedom of movement by the government
and treated with great warmth by the Iraqi people, but largely ignored
by the media. This impression that all the shields had fled not
only undermined the effectiveness of the action, but also led to
ridicule. Rather than being portrayed as brave and selfless, the
shields were instead caricatured as naïve and cowardly peaceniks. 

What,
if anything, went wrong with the human shield action to Iraq? The
media can be blamed for the perception that the movement had failed,
but cannot be held responsible for actual failures. The ability
of the human shield movement to prevent war relies on numbers. The
shield volunteers were under no illusions. They knew that it would
take more than a few hundred Western human shields to stop a war.
However, they felt that the longer war was averted and the borders
remained open, the number of shield volunteers would grow. With
numbers would come greater safety and more people would be emboldened
to join. A critical mass might thereby be reached. 

If
there were thousands rather than hundreds of human shields then
the generals would be forced to factor a new type of collateral
damage into their calculations. The reason this did not happen had
much less to do with the paucity of the idea than it did to do with
the lack of time in which to organize and mobilize. 

Although
the human shields failed to prevent the bombing of Baghdad, evidence
suggests that they were successful in shielding the sites at which
they were deployed. All the sites where the shields were deployed
were bomb- ed early in the first Gulf War. This time, only one of
the sites was mildly damaged. On the day after human shields left,
the telecommunications center in Baghdad was bombed. In Basra where
there were no human shields, water and power were hit in the first
days of the war. Coincidence or an indication that the human shields
had some effect? 

The
speed and ferocity with which the human shields were condemned by
the governments of Britain and the U.S. and by the right-wing media
is another indicator of the impact of the movement. On the day after
the departure of the convoy, White House Chief of Staff, Andrew
Card, released a statement condemning the action and “Fox News”
reported that U.S. leaders were considering prosecuting U.S. human
shields for war crimes. 

In
May, Faith Fippinger and Ryan Clancy returned from Baghdad to find
letters from the U.S. Treasury Department informing them that they
are liable to fines of between $10,000 and $1,000,000 or 12 years
in prison for violating U.S. sanctions. The sanctions, which have
now been partially lifted, prohibited American citizens from engaging
in “virtually all direct or indirect commercial, financial
or trade transactions with Iraq.” It is highly unlikely, however,
that the tiny purchases made by Clancy and Fippinger are the type
of “trade” that the sanctions were intended to prevent.
The fines  are not the routine enforcement of regulations,
but a politically motivated effort to punish dissent. Last July,
in a similarly punative action, the U.S. government sued Voices
in the Wilderness, a Chicago group that has delivered medicine to
Iraq since 1996 in violation of the regulations, which allow humanitarian
aid, but only by those granted a license. 

Human
shields are not a new concept, but the scale and impact of the recent
movement was unprecedented. Combining the idealism and solidarity
of the International Brigades with the principles of non-violent
direct action, the human shield movement is the latest in a long
tradition of protest. The impact of the human shields on this conflict
may be questioned, but their significance in the history of protest
can not. Whether a one-time act of defiance or the birth of a wider
movement remains to be seen, but we should never doubt the power
of thoughtful, committed citizens to change the world: indeed, it’s
the only thing that ever has.
 



Stefan
Simanowitz co-founded and coordinated the Human Shield Action to
Iraq. For more information, contact simanowitz@ fsmail.net.