Human Shields and pre-emptive Backfire


Source: Johansen, Jørgen. 2012. “Human shields and pre-emptive backfire.” In Backfire Manual, Tactics Against Injustice, edited by Brian Martin, 103-106. Sparsnäs: Irene Publishing.

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Human Shields and pre-emptive Backfire

It is normally not advisable to provoke the opponent in order to ”benefit” from the backfire effect of brutal violence against unarmed and peaceful activists. The effect could easily be reduced and the violence used by those in power more easily justified. If you intend to provoke the sympathy could easily be on your opponent side.

There are of course a grey zone between those completely innocent activists who are brutally attacked ”for no reason” and the obvious provocation that ”force” those in power to act with violence. The decisive point here is who will have the most trustworthy ”story”. Honesty may have a tendency to win in the long run, but there are no guarantees in this game. Transparency in planning and conducting actions will help the truth to come through. But in many cases there is no or little planning or strategic thinking behind actions were backfire is in effect.

One interesting case of such grey zones are what we can call actions of ”Human Shields”. Normally this term is used in the specific situation of humans protecting a possible target; mainly buildings. The thinking is that if ”innocent” or ”well respected” citizens stay close to a possible target they opponent will be hesitant to attack because they fear the backfire effect. There are several types of actions with a similar strategy to protect targets. The targets could also be humans, infrastructure, or nature.

Human Targets

When civilians are protected by other civilians it is often referred to as ”unarmed bodyguards”. Organisations like Nonviolent Peaceforce[1] and Peace Brigades International[2] act as human shields for other persons who are under threats by the state, guerrilla groups, mafia, or paramilitaries. They have a great record of effective work[3] and when they occasionally are attacked their own well documented and respected history makes it difficult to devalue them or intimidate the persons involved. One of their main activities is to document what they are doing so it is difficult for the attackers to cover up any damage and harm done to them. Such organisations have a well developed system to distribute information about their activities. Since well respected people are either directly involved or function as ambassadors for the work it is also difficult to reinterpret what has been done by lying, blaming and framing.

Buildings and infrastructure

Humans are frequently used as shields to protect buildings and infrastructure in war situations.

When NATO started to bomb Serbia on the 24. of March 1999, hundreds of locals and international activists soon came to stand on the bridges in Belgrade, Grdelica, Novi Sad and other cities in an attempt to prevent them from being destroyed by bombs. Some of the foreigners came from the same countries that took part in the bombing. Since several international media were present NATO did their best not to hit bridges with people on. Many other parts of the infrastructure were destroyed, but the bridges were people were staying hand in hand were saved.

In January 2003 thirty human shield volunteers left London for Iraq to stay in Baghdad in anticipation of the subsequent bombing that started some weeks later. During their bus journey through Europe they picked up many more activists and had a peak of approximately 500 who wanted to protect bomb targets in Iraq. They decided to stay at two water plants, two power plants, a food silo, a communication facility, and an oil refinery.[4] By making it well known that they would be living at, in, or close to these installations the goal was to prevent attacks. The effect of these actions is difficult to measure. Of these sites only one was bombed in 2003; the communications facility, a day after the human shields pulled out of it.


The struggles against deforestation have used the technique of human shields to protect trees. In India women from the Chipko movement in Garhwal Himalayas started in the early seventies to ”hug trees” when loggers came to cut them down. The earliest example of this kind of actions can be traced back to 1731 when Amrita Devi led hundreds of people to protect threatened trees in their community. Modern environmental activists have developed this further and some of them live up in trees for weeks in order to make it difficult for forest companies to cut them down. Others have buried all of their bodies, except their heads, in deep holes in the forest road to stop the timber transports from taking the timber out. If the large trucks shall pass they must drive over and kill the activists. Some of these campaigns have been successful, some are still going on.


The three types of human shields described here are using the backfire effect in a pre-emptive way. They are deliberately putting themselves at great risk and hope that the cost of harming or killing them would be too high for the people in power. There are of course no guarantee that this will work, but through good preparation they hope that the strategy will achieve its goals. They are planning their actions in such a way that those in power will face great difficulties when they try to minimise popular outrage:

  1. Through well prepared documentation and effective dissemination they make it difficult for the opponent to cover up atrocities.
  2. They try to engage well respected people to minimise any devaluation of the group carrying out the actions.
  3. With good access to mainstream media and as well as alternative media channels they limit the options for their opponents lie, blame, and reframe the actions.
  4. Whenever possible they build relations with official bodies like embassies, international organisations, and governments.

Some of the devaluation campaigns against such actions are focusing on the lack of volunteer participation. We have witnessed the attackers proclaiming that the human shields have been ordered to take part. Often the devaluation has taken the form of rumours that the participants will be punished if they refuse and awarded if they take part. Others are called naive or accused for collaboration with the “enemy”.

The more transparency and the more well respected people take part, the less effect will such accusations have.

It is possible that some people will take part in such actions because they have been threatened to do so or that they want to be martyrs, but these are in any case just a very small part of the total number.

There are a lot of ”Gandhian Experimenting” to be done in this field and more research to be carried out.


Mahony, Liam, and Luis Enrique Eguren. Unarmed Bodyguards : International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights.  West Hartford, Conn: Kumarian Press, 1997.

[3] Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren, Unarmed bodyguards : international accompaniment for the protection of human rights  (West Hartford, Conn: Kumarian Press, 1997).

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Posted in In English, Nonviolence, Peace Research

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