Thank you, Mr. President, and thank you, Mr. Mladenov, for your briefing. I have spoken many times about my strong belief that this monthly debate should be used to shed light on the many different sources of conflict and instability in the Middle East. There are unfortunately many to choose from, some of which prompt disagreement in the Security Council.
But today I want to address an issue about which there should be no disagreement. That issue is the use of innocent children, women, and men as human shields. Tragically, this outrageous practice is reaching epic proportions in the region.
A week ago today, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Hamas for its use of human shields. We were pleased to see this action. It’s difficult to think of a more cowardly act – even for a terrorist – than hiding behind innocent civilians.
The use of human shields deliberately advantages those with no regard for human life, and disadvantages those who seek to minimize civilian casualties. And the use of human shields isn’t confined to any one conflict. It is present across the Middle East in virtually every conflict.
ISIS routinely used human shields in Iraq. ISIS fighters took advantage of the presence of civilians in their homes, their hospitals, their schools, and their mosques. When they were forced out of their positions, ISIS went from door to door, rounding up families and forcing them to accompany their fighters as they evacuated their locations.
Hezbollah has also endangered civilians by positioning its fighters and its weapons among them. Its terrorists use schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings to shield its war arsenal in Lebanon.
In the course of its massive arms buildup, Hezbollah has turned Lebanese villages into military compounds, stationing weapons depots, rocket launchers, and command posts in, around, and under the civilian population.
In blatant defiance of Security Council Resolution 1701, hundreds of Lebanese villages are home to Hezbollah rockets and fighters. There are press reports that every third or fourth house in South Lebanon is in some way being used by Hezbollah to shield its activities.
Another example is Yemen. The United Nations has reported that Houthi militants have used Yemeni civilians as human shields.
Lastly, Hamas has exploited and endangered the very Palestinian people it claims to represent by locating rocket launchers near schools, apartment buildings, hotels, churches, and UN facilities. It’s been less than a year since a Hamas terror tunnel was discovered underneath two UNRWA schools in Gaza.
That means UN facilities were being used as a cover for Hamas’s military infrastructure. Notice the threads of commonality that run through these examples. The first is Iran. As usual, Iran is the patron and protector of many of these groups that fight from behind the bodies of innocent civilians.
Groups that Iran has sponsored or supported have perfected the tactic of using human shields, and inspired others to do the same. Of course, this is part of Iran’s overarching efforts to destabilize the region – efforts that include illegal weapons shipments to Yemen, and invading Israeli air space with armed drones from Syrian territory.
The second common thread is the dramatic risk to civilians. For those willing to sacrifice the innocent, there is no way to lose. Innocent civilians either provide cover for military infrastructure, or they become victims that rally the international media to their cause.
Either way, innocent civilians get caught in the crossfire, and exploited for illegitimate military and political purposes. All decent nations and responsible militaries seek to minimize civilian casualties in warfare.
Those who want to reduce civilian casualties in the Middle East must focus their attention on the actors, including non-state actors, who intentionally keep their military infrastructure in close proximity to civilians.
The use of civilians to intentionally shield otherwise lawful military targets from attack is a war crime. As is so often the case, it is the most vulnerable who pay the price for the use of human shields. Commandeering homes puts families – who are already in war zones – at additional risk.
Locating rocket launchers next to schools eliminates safe places for children. Putting command posts in the hospital shows complete disregard for the sick, the injured, and the elderly. Each time ISIS, Hezbollah, or Hamas succeeds in using a village, or a family, or a child, to protect its terrorist operations, the use of this grotesque tactic grows.
It is a win for the groups that are willing to endanger civilian populations in order to accomplish their political objectives. And it is a loss for the people who play by the rules; who seek to minimize rather than maximize civilian casualties.
Anyone who cares about the safety of Lebanese families should condemn this practice. Anyone who cares about the lives of Yemenis or Palestinians should demand accountability for the militants who exploit them. Anyone who truly cares about children in Gaza should insist that Hamas immediately stop using children as cannon fodder in its conflict with Israel.
This is an issue that transcends the usual debates in this chamber. It is quite simply an issue of decency. Humanity itself loses when the barbaric practice of human shields is tolerated and unanswered. For humanity’s sake, the Security Council must rise up to address this threat.