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ICRC poll shows rules of armed conflict enjoy broad support but are considered to have limited impact

10-08-2009 Interview

To mark the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions on 12 August, the ICRC conducted an opinion survey in eight countries affected by armed conflict and violence. According to the ICRC's deputy director of communication, Charlotte Lindsey, the newest findings indicate that an overwhelming majority of people agree that even wars should have limits, but far fewer are aware that rules on warfare already exist.


  Charlotte Lindsey    
    Meanwhile, many of those who are aware of the Geneva Conventions are doubtful that they have a real impact on the ground.

Ms Lindsey says this is a strong indicator that States and armed groups must make a greater effort to abide by the rules of war.

People were asked their views on some of the core principles of international humanitarian law (IHL). For exampl e, should certain types of behaviour be forbidden during armed conflict and should all wounded be given access to medical care? Respondents also commented on the effectiveness of the Geneva Conventions, which form the cornerstone of IHL.

The survey, entitled " Our world. Views from the field. " was carried out by the research company, Ipsos, in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia and the Philippines. The first part of the poll, which looked at the impact of armed conflict on civilians, was released on 24 June.

 What do people in these conflict-affected nations think about how armed conflict should be conducted?  


An overwhelming number of the roughly 4,000 people surveyed across the eight countries – 97% – say there should be a clear distinction between combatants and civilians when fighting takes place. Three out of four people say there should be limits to what combatants are allowed to do in the course of fighting.

Respondents consistently favour the view that civilians must be spared. For example, 88% say it is " not okay " to attack the enemy in densely populated villages or towns, knowing many civilians would be killed. More than 90% are against the tactic of depriving civilians of food, water or medicine in an effort to weaken the enemy. Almost all those questioned (96%) firmly object to attacks against religious or historical monuments.

Under IHL, the parties to a conflict must distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and property. Attacks may be made solely against military objectives. The survey shows that the respondents in all eight countries wholeheartedly agree with these essential rules. Thus, it is essential that military objectives are not located within the civilian population

 What did you find surprising or striking about the results of the poll?  


The findings show that the core ideas behind the Geneva Conventions, and IHL as a whole, are broadly supported by those who actually live in war-affected countries. I think it's remarkable that the same people who have lived through the horrors of war continue to firmly believe that there should be limits on how it is waged.

You might think that this is common sense, but if you consider the immense feelings of hatred, loss and revenge engendered by war it's encouraging to see the extent to which even those worst affected are willing to accept that the other, " enemy " side also deserves protection.

Strikingly, virtually everyone surveyed (96%) accepted the principle that all wounded or sick people should have the right to health care during an armed conflict, regardless of which side they supported. Similarly, most people (89%) want health workers to treat the wounded from all sides in armed conflicts.

Nine out of 10 respondents think there are no circumstances in which it is acceptable to target health workers, and a similar number (87%) believe the same for ambulances.

However, it is positive that the basic principles of humanitarian law are recognised as important, even if the research indicates that the Geneva Conventions themselves are not well known in some of the eight countries. Clearly, what is worrying is the level to which respondents'views on their effectiveness vary greatly.

 Why does this worry you?  


Only about half of the people across the eight countries, or around 42% on average, said they had heard of the Geneva Conventions. Of this group, slightly more than half (56%) consider them to be effective in limiting the suffering of civilians in wartime.

The responses varied from country to country. For example, 85% of people in Liberia who were aware of the Conventions said they had had a " great or fair amount of impact. " People in Afghanistan and Georgia also view the Conventions relatively favourably (70% and 67% respectively).

But in Lebanon, one of every two people who know what the Geneva Conventions are said they have had " little or no impact. " In Colombia and the Philippines, roughly half of those aware of the Conventions (47% and 50% respectively) also said they had " little or no " impact.

In general, it would appear that people who have the greatest exposure to armed conflict and to violence also have the greatest appreciation for the role the Geneva Conventions can play in reducing suffering. Thus, what is most worrying is that in reality, civilians continue to bear the brunt of armed conflict and violence. This indicates that the main problem is a lack of respect for IHL.

 In your opinion, what needs to happen in order to limit the impact of armed conflict on civilians and stop their suffering?  


Clearly, knowledge of international humanitarian law is important, but critically, what is needed is better implementation of this law in the waging of armed conflict. There needs to be a concerted international effort to improve compliance with IHL, which, although it may not be perfect, is definitely still rele vant. This would limit the human suffering caused by armed conflict.

In order to achieve this, States must start by adopting all the legislative, regulatory and practical measures necessary to incorporate IHL into domestic law and practice.

Secondly, increased knowledge and awareness of IHL is essential to ensuring it is respected. Members of armed forces and non-State armed groups at all levels must be properly trained in the application of the law, while civilians should have at least a basic understanding of it. This includes young people.

What's more, countries around the world must start seeing themselves as advocates for humanity in times of armed conflict. This means respecting IHL themselves but also ensuring respect for this law.

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