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Lessons learned from listening to people on war

01-11-1999 News Release 99/60

Joint communication to the press

ICRC No. 99/60

Federation No. 31/99

Geneva - Listening to people express their views on war will help us discover how to better protect people in war. This statement neatly encapsulates the idea behind the People on War project, a worldwide consultation on the rules to limit violence in warfare, launched by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) one year ago. More than 20,000 people in 17 countries - civilians and combatants alike - were interviewed between October 1998 and September 1999 to find out what basic rules they think should be implemented in war and why those rules are so often violated.

The results of this most extensive exercise in social research ever undertaken on war have been compiled in country reports, which will be available at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent as well as a final The People on War Report . The reports were written by Greenberg Research Inc., a Washington-based opinion-research firm, which developed the methology used in the consultation, combining representative opinion surveys and interpretative in-depth research.

Although an overwhelming majority of the populations surveyed, between 87% and 98%, are of the opinion that in war civilians should be spared from attack, this is often not done in practice. The People on War reports shed more li ght on the different reasons why. Even at this early stage in the evaluation, one can see that the problem is not anything as simple as a breakdown in people's sense of morality, resulting almost inevitably from the state of war. Rather, as conflict situations unfold, both civilians and combatants find their perceptions of their original beliefs changing. As a result of both this change and the particular nature of most of today's armed conflicts, it has grown less and less clear what the word'civilian'actually means to people. The reports explain the reasons for this shift in perceptions and how civilians easily pass a threshold beyond which they are viewed as taking part in the conflict.

The results of the People on War consultation are intended not only to invigorate the worldwide humanitarian debate as a new century dawns, but also to make more effective the ICRC's work to promote knowledge and acceptance of the rules of war. Further research on the data gathered will help us better understand where the threshold lies beyond which people are no longer viewed as non-combatants, and thus where attacks on them are perceived as justified. In the voices of these people lies the potential key to enhancing recognition that there must be limits to war, and thus to ensuring better protection for civilians.

    

 The International Federation, the ICRC and the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies together constitute the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.