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The roots of behaviour in war: Understanding and preventing IHL violations

31-03-2004 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 853, by Daniel Muñoz-Rojas, Jean-Jacques Frésard


Daniel Muñoz-Rojas
is a social psychologist. He is currently in charge of research for the ICRC.
  Jean-Jacques Frésard is an ICRC delegate. He carried out numerous missions for the ICRC as delegate and head of delegation. The article reflects the views of the authors alone and not necessarily those of the ICRC. 
Executive Summary 

The object of The Roots of Behaviour in War study was to identify the factors which are crucial in conditioning the behaviour of combatants in armed conflicts, with a view to determining whether the policies developed by the ICRC to prevent violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) take sufficient account of the characteristics of the bearers of weapons. This report describes the main findings and conclusions of The Roots of Behaviour in War study. It includes three main parts: an overview of the study, the main findings, and the main lessons.

Through empirical research and a review of the literature, The Roots of Behaviour in War study enunciated and confirmed three hypotheses concerning the behaviour of combatants at war: (1 ) the universal character of adherence to humanitarian principles, (2) the importance for combatants of authority, group affiliation and the spiral of violence they often find themselves locked into, and (3) the existence of mechanisms of moral disengagement when violations of IHL are committed. In addition, the study provided information on the impact of ICRC activities on combatants’ behaviour.

The study’s main lessons may be summarized by the following three points: (1) Efforts to disseminate IHL must be made a legal and political matter rather than a moral one, and focus more on norms than on their underlying values, because the idea that the combatant is morally autonomous is mistaken. (2) Greater respect for IHL is possible only if bearers of weapons are properly trained, if they are under strict orders as to the conduct to adopt and if effective sanctions are applied in the event they fail to obey such orders. (3) It is crucial that the ICRC be perfectly clear about its aims when it seeks to promote IHL and prevent violations: does it want to impart knowledge, modify attitudes or influence behaviour? The ICRC must develop strategies genuinely aimed at preventing violations of IHL.


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