The Human Shield Movement's Attempt to Prevent War in Iraq

By Simanowitz, Stefan | Contemporary Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Human Shield Movement's Attempt to Prevent War in Iraq


Simanowitz, Stefan, Contemporary Review


WAR changes many things. Global politics shift, military hardware and strategies are tried and tested and new forms of protest emerge. One such protest, the human shield movement, caught the attention of the world and, although limited in effectiveness, its impact might yet prove significant.

On a bright afternoon in January a convoy of three double-decker buses left London bound for Baghdad in a blaze of media coverage. On board were over fifty '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 Observer newspaper in which a former American marine, Ken O'Keefe, outlined his intention to organise a human shield convoy to try and stop the seemingly inevitable rush to war. A small group of people who had read the article met with O'Keefe in London later that week and set about turning the idea into a reality. 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 25th January. 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. The departure of the convoy received global coverage and as a result, the human shields forced their way into the consciousness of public and policy-makers alike.

As the buses crossed Europe picking up more shields en route, efforts were made to capitalise 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 departure of the convoy saw over sixty-thousand hits on the human shield website and over a thousand enquiries about becoming shields. Human shield organisations sprouted around the world; in France, Italy, Spain, Slovenia, America, Australia, India, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, New Zealand, Korea and Japan. The movement had become a global initiative.

The convoy itself encountered numerous difficulties; mechanical and logistical problems were compounded by stormy clashes of personality. But despite the difficulties and a week later than planned, the convoy rolled into Baghdad to a tumultuous welcome. Once in Baghdad 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 spys. 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. Anyone who did not want to take residence in these sites would be helped with their passage out of Iraq.

The need to work closely with the Iraqi government was not something many of the 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 residence in the sites, a list of which was sent to the Coalition Joint Chiefs of Staff together with a request that they recognize that the targeting of these sites would be in violation of Art. …

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