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People on war: Answers to your questions


The purpose of international humanitarian law is to limit human suffering in times of armed conflict and to prevent atrocities. Even wars have limits.

 What is People on War?  

12 August 1999 is the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. These Conventions - which are central to international humanitarian law (IHL) - are the most important international instruments to defend human dignity in war and among the most widely ratified treaties in the world.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) feels that the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions should be more than simply a commemoration. On the eve of the 21st century, this anniversary is a historic opportunity for the world to reflect on what has occurred in the half-century since the Conventions were adopted, to take stock of the present and to consider the future of international law and humanitarian action.

Undeniably, countless people have received protection under the Geneva Conventions. Nevertheless, suffering in war is rife, and increasingly involves civilians. So many people have not been saved...

 This deserves attention and demands action.  

People on War is a worldwide project that intends to increase awareness around the world of the rules that already exist for people's protection in wartime and to encourage discussion of humanitarian law in the context of modern-day conflict. It is designed to involve those who have experience of war.

 What are the main objectives of People on war?  

 1. To give a voice to people affected by war  

Rationale: After decades of working for the victims of armed conflict and speaking on their behalf, the ICRC feels it is time to seek the opinion of populations affected by war on the limits to warfare set by international law. For purposes of contrast and comparison, people living in more peaceful circumstances and whose concept of war is essentially shaped by the media will also be heard.

 2. To increase public awareness and support for humanitarian rules  

Rationale: The ICRC hopes to mobilise public opinion at the national level so that governments will " respect and ensure respect for " IHL. National implementation measures and mechanisms and dissemination and instruction for the armed forces are some of the means whereby governments can meet their obligations in this regard.

 3. To enlarge the constituency of international humanitarian law  

Rationale: IHL is not sufficiently well known, not only by the public at large but also among circles one would expect to be better informed, such as armed forces, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, academics, etc.

 4. To stimulate far-reaching debate  

Rationale: Poor knowledge of IHL reinforces the impression that it is a body of law that has yet to be created. The challenge is to counter the idea that the law is to be created from scratch, when in fact it is already quite comprehensive and nevertheless both expanding and becoming more specific (e.g. Ottawa treaty, International Criminal Court). The ICRC's intention is not to push for the adoption of a new Convention but to mobilise for better implementation of existing law.

 5. To participate in the drafting of the humanitarian agenda for the early 21st century  

Rationale: A sense of global responsibility is emerging, potentially paving the way for a major shift in the direction of humanitarian affairs. The ICRC will contribute in the development of the humanitarian agenda for the next century and will integrate the wealth of new information the People on War project will reveal.

 How will these objectives be achieved?  

People on War seeks to achieve these objectives via the organisation of many activities

 1. By conducting a worldwide consultation  

- From November 1998 to August 1999, the ICRC will be gathering the opinions of thousands of people who have been directly affected by war. Consultations will be held in a dozen countries among others Colombia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Philippines, Somalia, South Africa, Georgia/Abkhazia, El Salvador and the Middle East. A parallel survey will be conducted among people living in countries at peace.

- In countries affected by war, the consultations will be both quantitative (questionnaires for a representative sample of 500 people per community) and qualitative (focus groups and individual interviews). People will be asked about their personal experience of armed conflict, their opinion on whether there are limits to warfare and their expectations for the future.

- In countries at peace, the consultations will be carried out by means of questionnaires only. The questi onnaire will be designed to elicit people's perceptions of war.

- In both cases the topics covered will include protection of the civilian population, the distinction between civilians and combatants, the minimum rules of conduct in hostilities, peace support operations, torture, respect of children, women in war, etc.

- A report for each context (which may subsequently be used for various purposes - international humanitarian law, human rights, peace-building, causes of violence, etc.) as well as a final report will be published. The final report is due to appear in autumn 1999, and will be presented at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (Geneva, November 1999).

- Ultimately the ICRC intends to carry out consultations among the national armed forces of as many countries as possible, specifically targeting young officers.

 2. By launching a worldwide public campaign  

- The public campaign will be launched in the first few months of 1999 and reach its peak between 12 August 1999 and the 27th International Conference.

- Where the title " People on War " reflects the ICRC's desire to give a voice to those who have personal experiences of war as well as to stimulate discussion, the slogan expresses the basic principle of the Geneva Conventions: " Even wars have limits " .

- The public campaign will entail production of promotional material such as TV spots, posters, brochures, exhibitions, etc., which will be made available to the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

- Several production agencies, both public and private, are interested in producing documentaries on the subjects to be covered during the worldwide consultations. Moreover, several magazine s and newspapers have expressed interest in publishing supplements on these topics.

- " Artists on war " : creative artists (filmmakers, writers, singers, etc.) will be invited to produce works around the subject " limits in war " .

- An interactive Web site will be launched in April 1999. It will provide details of all aspects of the People on War project.

 3. By organising and taking part in debates  

- The ICRC intends to stimulate debate on IHL and humanitarian work. To this end it will organise several seminars, round tables, etc. in different places throughout the world, preferably in the southern hemisphere, to which members of the legal profession as well as others with an interest in the law and/or humanitarian action will be invited, such as journalists, academics other than lawyers, humanitarian aid workers, NGOs, members of the armed forces, government representatives, etc.

- The ICRC will also become more actively involved in the legal debate, on the basis of the idea that " ensuring respect " derives from " ensuring effective functioning " (i.e. the mechanisms provided for in the Conventions themselves and those proposed or decided upon by the United Nations Security Council). To this end the ICRC has joined forces with International Law 90, a French NGO which has launched a debate in French and English on this subject on its Web site (address:

- Both the fora for debate (seminars, workshops, meetings, etc.) listed above and the means of communication used (specialised publications such as reviews, journals, etc.) should reach out to these above-mentioned target groups.

- Once the results of the consultations have been analysed and published for each of the contexts covered, the ICRC wil l foster debate at the national and regional level (and launch an awareness-raising campaign).

- In addition, the 175 National Societies will be invited to organise debates (or other commemorative events) in their own countries.

- The centenary of the First Conference for Peace of 1899 will be marked by two conferences organised on the one hand by the Netherlands in the Hague in May 1999 and on the other hand by The Russian Federation in St-Petersburg in June 1999. Three subjects will be debated on: the law of armed conflict, disarmament and the peaceful settlement of disputes. In parallel, a coalition of NGO's, The Hague Appeal for Peace, will organise in May 1999 an important encounter in The Hague.

- From September to early November 1999 several seminars and round tables will be held throughout the world on various topics reflected in the agenda of the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which will open in Geneva on 31 October 1999. The International Conference brings together the 188 States party to the Geneva Conventions, 175 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Federation of those Societies and the ICRC itself.

- The awareness campaign will culminate during the 27th International Conference (31 October-6 November 1999) with the presentation of the results of the consultations to the 188 States party to the Geneva Conventions and the 175 National Societies. In addition, a more wide-ranging humanitarian plan of action will be debated and adopted during the Conference.

 4. By organising public events  

- Launch of the People on War Web site (April 1999).

- On 12 August 1999 the ICRC plans to organise a double event with the support of the Swiss federal authorities, in their capacity as repres entatives of the depositary State of the Geneva Conventions, and of the cantonal and city authorities:

An Appeal reflecting the concerns of the people consulted throughout the world in the months preceding the event will be adopted by a group of prominent figures invited in their personal capacity, all of whom have a link with the problem of violence. Potential guests include Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General, who will head the group of guests. The appeal will be read out by the President of the ICRC. The ceremony, at which the media will be present, will be followed by a round table with the press and an official reception. In addition to the Swiss federal, cantonal and city authorities, diplomats based in Bern and/or Geneva and the heads of international organisations will be invited.

The appeal ceremony will coincide with the inauguration of a display of giant banners set up throughout the city of Geneva (on walls, buildings, billboards, etc.). The banners will bear extracts from the Geneva Conventions and quotes from people interviewed during the consultations, together with photos and artwork.

- The 27th International Conference (see above)

The appeal of 12 August may be endorsed by the 27th International Conference.

 5. By participating in the drafting of the humanitarian agenda for the early 21st century  

- At the United Nations Millennium General Assembly, to be held in the year 2000 in New York, the UN Member States will review the world global situation and outline hopes for the future. The Secretary-General will present different " segments " , one of which covers humanitarian action. The " humanitarian " segment will deal with the concerns, chall enges and objectives of humanitarian agencies for the early 21st century.

- Following a proposal by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the ICRC has agreed to chair a task force comprising the members of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a body bringing together all the humanitarian organisations. The task force's mandate is to analyse the results of all events relating to humanitarian work held in 1999 so as to identify points which might be included in the " humanitarian segment " .

 International Committee of the Red Cross  

 Campaign unit  

 February 1999  

 Ref. LG 1999-006-ENG  

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