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"People on War"The flagship project marking the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions

11-08-1999 News Release 99/33

Many months ago, when 12 August 1999 was just a distant date on the calendar, the ICRC was wondering what would be the most appropriate way to mark the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. Obviously this could not be a joyous occasion - there had been too much suffering in the intervening years - but nor could it be allowed to pass unnoticed. Hence the idea of carrying out a wide-ranging opinion survey among war victims and persons bearing weapons, asking " ordinary " people who had been directly affected by war how they understood, on the basis of their own experience, the slogan " Even Wars have Limits " .

For the purposes of this project, entitled " People on War " , the ICRC recorded the views of thousands of people in 11 countries affected, or previously affected, by war: Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, El Salvador, Georgia/Abkhazia, Israel and the occupied and the autonomous territories, Lebanon, Nigeria, the Philippines, Somalia and South Africa. The information was gathered by means of individual questionnaires, interviews and group discussions. In parallel, a similar but less detailed survey was conducted among the population of countries at peace: France, the Russian Federation, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. An American consultancy firm, Greenberg Research Inc., was enlisted to work out the best polling methods for this unique project and to analyse the results.

A separate report will be drawn up for every country covered, and a consolidated comparative report will be published at a later date. This will be the first complete " X-ray " , so to speak, of the state of international humanitarian law, of which the G eneva Conventions are the cornerstone.

For the ICRC, and indeed for all those concerned directly or indirectly with the development of humanitarian action and wishing to resolve the pressing problems that are impairing its effectiveness, the People on War project should provide some valuable insights during the coming months. By launching an international debate on the validity of the principles of international humanitarian law and offering interested circles the first comparative study on the level of knowledge of the law, and by opening a fresh dialogue with warring parties and other players, the project promises to be a major asset in the preparation of the humanitarian agenda for the 21st century.

The project has already reached a great many people - far more than the thousands of participants interviewed in various contexts, because it has been a vast logistic exercise requiring the personal involvement, both physical and intellectual, of hundreds of volunteers from National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and a considerable number of other local partners and contacts.

In the ICRC's view, the very fact of having managed to complete a consultation on this scale despite enormous organizational difficulties is a success in itself, even though the analysis of the data and the drafting of the reports is taking longer than anticipated. Further details, a model questionnaire and, shortly, the initial results can be found at, the project's special Website.

On the eve of the anniversary that prompted the People on War project, the ICRC derives much satisfaction from the renewal of its dialogue with people whom it considers to be of the utmost importance: those who make war or suffer its effects on the ground. The ultimate aim is to mobilize public opinion worldwide. Through the People on War project, the ICRC is declaring that war is not inevitable, and that moreover it is determined by the conscience of the individual.


" If you find yourself in a conflict, do not lose your human quality. Do not dehumanize yourself. That will help you a lot not to make mistakes and waste human lives. And that is the best you can hope for in a conflict, not to lose your humanity. "

 Former guerrilla fighter in El Salvador  

" It is quite painful to kill a person. We are killers - we have killed. Our hands are red with blood. We thought we were protecting the community, yet today we are seen as killers. "

 Former fighter in a South African township  

" I would like to say how important the level of awareness among people is to enforce a law. There are a lot of people who unfortunately do not know about these rules, these laws. They become victims themselves ... when harm is inflicted on them. They think this is normal. They think this is how it should be, that this is life, because they are ignorant. "

 Woman in Lebanon whose husband is missing  

" My sister aged 57, who lived in Sarajevo alone, was killed there. If I had caught the man who killed my sister I would have cut his throat on the spot. Don't think I wouldn't have. However, I think differently now that the passions have cooled. But at that moment I don't know what I would have done to him, out of rage. "

 Civilian in Bosnia-Herzegovina  

" Killing the prisoners will not bring back a dead relative, nor will it solve the war. Instead it is degrading and against Islam. They should hand them over to the relief agencies. "

 Displaced women in Somalia  

" If a country is attacked from the outside, the people draw closer together. In an internal conflict, the beastly nature of people is revealed. They turn out to be able to kill children. "

 Elderly woman in Georgia  

" A war without rules would be a cruel war where nothing would count. Only winning. And winning is not all. "

 Guerrilla fighter in Colombia