War Manual Revised, Now Limits US Attacks on Human Shields

Experts Warn Revised Manual Still Falls Short of Legal Standards

The US “Law of War Manual” has undergone a substantial change from its 2015 version, aiming to avoid at least some of the loudest condemnations from lawyers and human rights groups about the manual’s advice on US military personnel attacking innocent civilians in war zones, which is supposed to be the whole purpose of the guide in the first place.

The 2015 version of the manual suggested a broad collection of civilians could simply be killed with impunity, and that their deaths could safely be ignored when deciding if an attack was “proportional” under international law. This included civilians being forced into being human shields, along with civilians working at a facility whose continued operation “helps the enemy.”

Legal experts warned this was a major misinterpretation of international law, and it likely played a role in US officials declaring all the civilians in major cities to be de facto human shields during military operations in places like Mosul, since it made their lives legally meaningless, at least according to the book.

The new book insists that “unvoluntary” human shields now must be given full protection under the laws of war, though the manual continued to insist that people who voluntarily remain in an area where they are shielding something the US wants to bomb are not afforded such protection.

Rutgers law professor Adil Haque was the most specific critic of both books quoted in the media, saying the new version is an improvement but continues to fall short. He warned the manual’s concept of “passive” human shields who don’t even know their shielding something covered “pretty much every civilian in ISIS-controlled cities and towns.” He also expressed disappointment that the manual continues to argue that when there is any doubt about the identity of a potential target, commanders can simply assume none of the people present are civilians.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for Antiwar.com. He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.