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The rationale of the "People on War" project

11-11-1998

 Taking stock of the century of war  

The twentieth century, having seen two World Wars, the invention and use of chemical and nuclear weapons, and a record number of people, in particular civilians, killed in hostilities, can justifiably be called the " century of war " . It is also the century that produced the first-ever universal humanitarian treaties. In its final years, marked by the anniversaries of the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions, the horrors of war and the initial attempts to preserve a minimum of humanity in war through international humanitarian law call for action and critical analysis.

After the end of the Second World War, the international community took the initiative to impose restrictions on the use of violence by adopting the charter of the United Nations, which virtually bans war. A few years later, in 1949, it reaffirmed its support for and extended the scope of the Geneva Conventions, the major international treaties that impose limits on warfare and afford protection to war victims. This apparent paradox certainly illustrates the agony of humankind torn between its resolve to put a stop to war and the apparent inevitability of armed conflicts.

Today, some 50 years later, unprecedented efforts in the areas of mediation, conflict resolution, peace-making and peace-keeping have still not achieved universal peace. War has become even more cruel in its methods and effects. Traditional dist inctions and patterns have become blurred since the end of the Cold War: it is harder to distinguish between humanitarian and military action, humanitarian affairs and foreign affairs, combatants and civilians, and even between war and peace, with the resurgence of " sub-State " conflicts that involve new players and destabilize the established patterns of humanitarian action.

The humanitarian community is having to operate in an increasingly complex and fluid environment which is calling into question many accepted terms of reference and shattering any kind of illusion. At the same time the community of States is taking a close interest in humanitarian action conducted in situations of conflict. A sense of global responsibility is emerging, potentially paving the way for a major shift in the direction of humanitarian affairs.

On the eve of the 21st century, humanitarian issues need to be thoroughly reviewed by means of a universal debate. In order to stimulate this debate, to take stock of the past and look forward to the future, the " People on War " project will gather new and valuable information directly from those who have been most affected by the " law of war " - by its successes and by its failures.

Given the cruel reality of war and its seemingly perpetual resurgence, the humanitarian postulate - the rejection of inhumane behaviour even in war - is as burning an issue as ever. In the new global environment, it needs to be reformulated.

 Listening to the people  

Every day on TV, real-time war reporting portrays massacres and killings with no reference to the complexity of the context or the intricacy of its determinants. Men and women in faraway conflicts become mute symbols of suffering or faceless objects of barbarity. A simplistic " that's war " mindset is pro moted, leading the public to view violence as a fatality, atrocities as inevitable, and one part of humankind as born either to kill or to suffer, while the rest lives in safety.

The People on War project will listen to those previously without a voice, and remind the public at large that people in war-torn areas, trapped as they are in complex and cruel situations, are the primary partners of humanitarian agencies. In seeking their opinions the campaign treats people as individuals, with their own hopes and dignity, their vast and valuable experience, and the potential to shape their own future.

Making the voices of thousands of civilians and combatants heard will permit a much more subtle appreciation of what really happens and matters in a society devastated by war.

Some of the central aims of the campaign are to determine whether or not there are shared moral standards that formal law and military practice can build on; to establish whether the idea of placing limits on war has a basis in human nature; and to gain an insight into the complex dilemmas facing people in the midst of conflict. Finally, the project will ask what suggestions ordinary people, caught up in somebody else's war, can make in order to achieve a greater degree of humanity.

This endeavour is more than a way of dramatizing the human tragedy caused by war. People's experience and their opinions on war and the rules governing warfare will be respected. Carefully designed quantitative and qualitative research will produce a record that is new, accurate and reliable. This record will be useful not only for historians, legal experts, humanitarian professionals and all individuals, groups and organizations who have a stake in humanitarian affairs, but also for the societies from which it originates.

 Sharing with others all over the world  

Those who are actually experiencing the reality of war are rarely consulted, because debates on the subject take place in meetings they cannot attend and the findings are reflected in documents which they do not write or have the opportunity to read.

It is the ambition of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to bring people in war-torn societies back into the global arena where the humanitarian rules and decisions of tomorrow are generated, and to make the process less of a monologue and more of a dialogue.

The ICRC will make the actual consultations as public as the safety of the participants and the integrity of the procedure permit. Local and international media will be invited to witness the project as it unfolds, experts and other interested parties will have the opportunity to work with the consultation materials, and the field operations will be open to observers and researchers. An innovative Internet platform will offer the possibility of interactive dialogue and rapid publication of materials and results. The ICRC will make a special effort to ensure that the results of the consultation are available to the communities consulted, and anticipates that they will stimulate local debate. The entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will be actively involved in the process, and the final results of the consultation will be presented at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in November 1999.

 Looking forward to a better future  

Whatever the outcome of the consultation, it is important that the listening process results in action designed to ensure a better future for those who have given their time to talk about their experiences.

The ICRC believes that this project has the potential to create a more humane world through a variety of effects:

*governments, intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations will have a wealth of information at their disposal to guide them in their work for societies disrupted by war;

*societies that have experienced war will have a non-partisan record of opinions that will encourage reflection about their own history;

*researchers and specialists around the world will be offered new materials and new motivation for cooperation with future humanitarian activities;

*the public will gain a more comprehensive picture of war and a better understanding of the importance of imposing limits on warfare, and the assumption of inevitability will be overcome;

*the rules governing war will become more widely known, particularly among the military but also among the general public.

The ICRC expects this radical and risky but pragmatic project to make a major contribution to the humanitarian agenda of the 21st century. The project has been initiated by the ICRC, but the crucial parts will be conducted by those who have suffered most in w ar and know the most about it.

 International Committee of the Red Cross  

 Campaign Unit  

 November 1998  

 Ref. LG 1998-083-ENG