Archived page: may contain outdated information!
  • Send page
  • Print page

Lessons learned from listening to people on war

12-10-1999 News Release 99/55

Enhancing protection of civilians

ICRC presents innovative body of research on war

Geneva (ICRC) - 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 (including initial findings and interpretations), the first of which were presented in Geneva today. The reports were written by Greenberg Research Inc., a Washington-based opinion-research firm, which developed the methods used in the consultation, combining representative opinion surveys and interpretative in-depth research.

The reports presented today cover four countries that have experienced war in recent years – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Lebanon and Somalia – and four others – France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – that play an important role regarding international and regional peace and security policy in their capacity as permanent members of the UN Security Council.

" An overwhelming majority of the populations surveyed, between 87% and 98%, are of the opinion that in war civilians should be spared from attack " , explains Christophe Girod, head of the People on War project. Nevertheless, this is often not done in practice. The People on War reports shed more light on the different reasons why. " Even at this early stage in our evaluation, we can see that the problem is not anything as simple as a breakdown in people's sense of morality " , says Girod. " 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. Being forced to provide food, shelter or information to combatants – or doing so voluntarily – leads to a blurring of the line between civilian and combatant. Unfortunately, this is much more likely to occur in modern-day conflicts, in which the population as a whole can easily be viewed by one side or the other as taking part. As a war victim put it in an interview, " Civil war is harder than international war, in which you can tell who your enemy is. In civil war you do not know who your enemy is. " Moreover, in the growing number of identity-driven conflicts warfare is perceived by combatants as an act of self-defence on the part of the particular group to which they belong. This frequently erases the distinction between civilians and combatants as laid down in international humanitarian law. As one ex-soldier put it, " It is not a crime when you are defending your home and family . "

Most of the interviews were carried out by means of extensive standardized questionnaires (more than 20,000 in all) which were later processed into quantitative data. In addition, over 250 individual and 100 focus-group discussions were recorded and transcribed. Most of the actual field work was carried out by Red Cross and Red Crescent staff all over the world and it was owing to this worldwide network, with its access to both the bearers of arms and the victims of war, that the research was possible at all.

" Many people were sceptical about opinion research, and so were we – before we started " , says Christophe Girod about what was no average polling exercise. It reached people in places where few humanitarian organizations would dare to go and where opinion-research firms often would not even know how to make the initial approach. " We wanted to speak to ordinary people who had lost their homes, to soldiers, doctors and prisoners of war, to those who have loved ones missing, to guerillas and members of paramilitary groups, to non-governmental organizations and to international peace-keepers. And we did. We wanted to cover the entire world, all the different types of conflicts that have marked the past 50 years. Today we have concluded this research and possess one of the most important and innovative bodies of social research on war ever carried out. "

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 ar e perceived as justified " , says Girod. " 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. "