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Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire - 22 March 2021

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Speakers: Prof Neve Gordon, Professor of International Law, Queen Mary University of London; Dr Nicola Perugini, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, the University of Edinburgh

Discussant: Dushyanthy Pillai, PhD candidate King’s College London

Chair: Professor Rachel Kerr, Professor of War and Society, King’s College London


Human shields are increasingly used in modern conflicts, exposing civilians and other protected persons to high risk of death and injuries. Using human shields is a violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime under the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and customary international law.

What, exactly, are human shields, and what types of shields do we encounter within war zones? How should a warring party react when confronted by enemy combatants who hide behind civilians? Does volunteering to become a human shield to stop state violence constitute a humane or inhumane act? Does international law prevent or facilitate the use of lethal violence against vulnerable people?

In their recently published book ‘Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire’ (University of California Press, 2020), Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini describe the use of human shields in key historical and contemporary moments across the globe. Recounting incidents of human shielding over a span of 150 years while looking at how the laws of armed conflict have dealt with the phenomenon, the authors explain when, why, and how certain manifestations of violence come to be conceived as humane while others are perceived as inhumane.



Neve Gordon teaches in the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London. Focusing on international humanitarian law, human rights, the ethics of violence, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gordon first book, Israel’s Occupation (2008), provided a structural history of Israel’s mechanisms of control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while his second book, The Human Right to Dominate (2015, with Nicola Perugini) examines how human rights, which are generally conceived as tools for advancing emancipation, can also be used to enhance subjugation and dispossession. In Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire (2020 also with Perugini), Gordon follows the marginal and controversial figure of the human shield over a period of 150 years in order to interrogate the laws of war and how the ethics of humane violence is produced. Gordon has also edited two volumes, one on torture (with Ruchama Marton) and the other on marginalized perspectives on human rights. He is currently working on a project that examines how new warfare technologies challenge the underlying framework of the laws of war.

Nicola Perugini is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. Nicola's research focuses mainly on international law, human rights, and violence. He is the author (with Neve Gordon) of The Human Right to Dominate (Oxford University Press 2015) and Human Shields. A History of People in the Line of Fire (University of California Press 2020). Nicola has published articles on war and the ethics of violence; the politics of human rights, humanitarianism, and international law; humanitarianism's visual cultures; war and embedded anthropology; refugees and asylum seekers; law, space and colonialism; settler-colonialism and trauma in Israel/Palestine. He has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (2012/2013), a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University (2014-2016), and a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow (2017-2019). His current research project explores the global history of the University of Edinburgh and its entanglement in imperialism in the Middle East.

Dushyanthy Pillai is a PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies. Her research is concerned with the use of education in transitional justice to build peace in Sri Lanka. She is a member of the War Crimes Research Group.


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22 March 2021

Online event