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Using persons with disabilities as a weapon of war

I know many of you are wondering why I haven’t published anything recently, and I’m really grateful to those who have contacted me after noticing the absence of my blog. With so many things going on around me personally and globally, I have been absorbed by them, and something inside me stopped me even being able to describe what has been happening. It has been too much for me; personally, I lost family members due to cancer and some friends for other reasons, and every day I received bad news about someone or something, which overwhelmed me and my ability to deal with these feelings of loss.

Internationally things have not been much better. The breakdown of democracy in Tunisia; the level of hate speech in the region between peoples who previously lived in peace; the world literally on fire seen for example by the forest fires experienced in Algeria. The unfair and unequal delivery of the covid vaccine has shown how people are really suffering from the inequality, both regionally and globally, especially with richer countries hoarding vaccines. I have also seen the vaccine become a tool of political pressure in many places, and hundreds of thousands of people are getting sick as they can’t access medicines or health care services. International organisations are overwhelmed. On top of this there is the scale of war in the region and the number of victims and persons with disabilities (PwD) resulting from these seemingly never-ending conflicts. Seeing Afghanistan at war especially touched me because during my childhood and the time I spent in hospital in Spain, I met many children who were victims of the conflict in Afghanistan at the time. This was the first time that I really became aware of the issue of PwD and their link with conflict, so whenever I hear of conflict in Afghanistan, it takes me back to this time.

I couldn’t deal with watching this anymore, but today as I was going through the latest news, the topic of using women as a weapon of war caught my attention. This reminded me of many cases where PwD have been used as a weapon of war. When I was meeting with an international organisation working in Baghdad, I asked them whether they employed PwD – their response was no, due to security issues. They explained that there are many checkpoints when entering a green zone. They said that it would be difficult for PwD to easily pass these checkpoints, and that it may not be safe for them to come into these areas. While trying to be as diplomatic as possible, they implied that it was due to the risk of PwD being used as a weapon of war. This was one of the first stories I heard about this, so I started looking into the issue more to try and understand it better. I arranged meetings and tried to search online – I could find very little information, and at every meeting in different countries, I heard the same story.

Over the last few years I have come to hear about some cases of PwD being used as weapons of war in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Yemen, where some people were exploited unknowingly or against their will, for instance as human shields, and some who were groomed into becoming suicide bombers. But if you search online for information regarding PwD being used as weapons of war, typically you will only find some general references to the vulnerability of PwD in conflict situations [1], and possibly reference to a few examples, for instance from Iraq [2]. You are much more likely to find information about women and girls and the prevalence of sexual violence, or how children or civilians in general are exploited in this way. The use of PwD in conflict and their exploitation as weapons of war has not received the same attention or visibility, although it is a real and current threat that PwD face in conflict situations.

Although there is certainly intersectionality between the situation of PwD and these other groups that are explicitly studied and mentioned in policy, there needs to be more focus on the situation for PwD, since they face additional and specific challenges. For instance, the fear regarding the weaponisation of PwD is creating further barriers to their employment opportunities, where often many barriers already exist. Such issues are further compounded by the daily issues of ableism and stigmatisation faced by PwD. In contexts where suicide bombers are a serious risk, fear and distrust can have devastating effects on PwD who are already at risk of ‘othering’. Behaviour, appearance, and body language of PwD are also often misinterpreted, and some PwD have difficulties in communicating their actions. They may not understand instructions given by security officers or may not be able to physically comply to orders such as raising their hands, kneeling, or lying face down. Essential medicine, aids or devices may be viewed as potential explosives, and even when PwD are not treated with such suspicion, they are particularly vulnerable in situations where civilians may be used as human shields.

In 2015, I started speaking publicly about the protection of PwD in conflict situations and the lack of legal protection, and even based my master’s thesis on this topic. One of my teachers at Lund University, Sweden, told me that the international community was fully aware of this issue and felt ashamed that nothing so far had been done towards achieving protection. He said that people like me are really needed to push this agenda. Since I was last in Syria in 2012, until now, I have been carrying this issue with me, and how the situation can be improved is always on my mind.

It is now 2021, and I am shocked that there are still so few sources of information on the issue of PwD as weapons of war. If the issue were more visible, steps could be made towards addressing it. International law, treaties, conventions, and Customary International Law (CIL) specifically mention the illegality of the use of human shields, voluntarily or otherwise [3]. However, the protection for PwD during conflict is only mentioned in general [4] and not specifically in terms of their weaponisation during conflict. The wording that no human being should be targeted during conflict does not go far enough. Although it could be argued that the provision includes PwD, it is too general to lead to concrete protective and preventive measures. This is serious, because PwD are more likely to be targeted on the one hand, and on the other, in situations of conflict PwD are specifically discriminated against, due to the fear that they will be used as a weapon of war. By the same token, an absence of relevant studies and the lack of discussion of using PwD as weapons of war, also means that the chances of successfully addressing the wider issues faced by PwD in conflict settings are diminished.

Chavia Ali

[1] [2] [3] Additional Protocol I (API) of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and Customary International Law (CIL) - Together, these rules make clear that the prohibition of the use of human shields—voluntary or involuntary—is absolute in IHL (International Humanitarian Law) [4] “States Parties shall take, in accordance with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters” (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Optional Protocol (2006: 10). Available at [Accessed 04 October 2021]

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