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The "People on War" project - After years of speaking on their behalf, the ICRC is giving a voice to war victims


 After decades of working and speaking for people affected by armed conflict, the ICRC felt it was time to seek views on the limits in war from the victims themselves. This quest focused on the core question: are there shared moral standards that formal law and military practice can build on? In other words, does the idea of placing limits on war have a basis in human nature? The response was compelling: 93 % of people interviewed answered that rules should limit violence and 76 % even spontaneously described which kind of behaviour should not be allowed in war. The idea that attacking civilians is out of bounds was overwhelmingly shared, making it a nearly universal precept.  


 Another discovery for the interviewers was the very low number (5%) of people who refused to be interviewed: not only were people ready to talk about their experience of war, but they felt it was their right to be heard.  


 While 1999 was dedicated to gathering the raw material, the goal in 2000 is to seek ways of promoting the findings and analyse the lessons to be learned from them so as to ensure their most effective use.  



 1999: listening to people and gathering data  

Under the guidance of Greenberg Research Inc, ICRC staff and Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers carried out the consultation in 12 countries recently affected by war, and for the purpose of comparison, 5 countries whose people have not directly experienced war recently (see list of countries and of reports available at the end of this document).

Between October 1998 and September 1999, in over 14,000 hours of interviews, some 20,000 questionnaires were collected and processed and over 250 individual and 100 focus group discussions were recorded and transcribed, yielding one of the biggest and most innovative bodies of social research on war ever conducted.

The target audience were ordinary people who had lost their homes, families of missing persons and prisoners of war as well as soldiers, guerillas and members of paramilitary groups, and doctors, NGOs and international peace-keepers. The topics covered included protection of the civilian population; the distinction between civilians and combatants; minimum rules of conduct in armed conflict; peace-support operations; torture; and respect for women and children.


 First mapping and presentation of the findings  

On the basis of the data, Greenberg Research Inc. analysts prepared a series of 16 Country Reports analysing the findings in the individual countries and explaining the methodology used, plus one general comparative report exploring global trends and issues. These documents are intended to show how people, in their own words, experience war and how they view its rules and other major issues related to modern warfare. The Reports should also serve to facilitate and stimulate further research as the raw data will be made availa ble to experts worldwide at a later stage. In November 1999, the Country Reports and the overall report were presented to 188 States and 177 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva.



 2000: making the most of the findings  

In addition to highly relevant findings, the survey yielded a full-fledged, reality-tested " listening methodology " and a set of related skills. The challenge now is to make the information easy to handle and, using the methodology and analytical follow-up, fashion new tools to support the work of the ICRC and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in war zones. To exploit the full potential of the project in terms of operational and communication practice, the ICRC proposes to explore four different avenues: 

1. Putting the data at the service of international research  


After serving as a basis for the reports published by Greenberg Research, the data is now being repatriated from the ICRC field delegations to Geneva to be cleaned, formatted, indexed and stored in a professional database centre. To protect the privacy of the people mentioned by name in the survey, the entire data has to pass first through a delicate and time-consuming process of anonymisation, in which all personal references are erased. For this job the IC RC has chosen the Neuchâtel-based Swiss Information and Data Archive Service for the Social Sciences (SIDOS), a state-of-the-art archive centre linked to the international network of social science data centres. By mid-2000, properly packaged and anonymised sets of data should be available to international research circles.

Harvard University has approached the ICRC with a proposal for a one-year common research project on the findings, offering to publish results that would revalidate and review the data; publish an in-depth monograph to give the research appropriate scientific status; and propose policy recommendations on solid grounds.

The People on War project has recently been presented to a team of 30 researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Foreign Affairs. Despite reservations about the methodology, they confirmed its usefulness for a broad spectrum of research lines. They emphasized in particular the originality of the approach, the uniqueness of the data and the fact that they will remain valid for about five years, which is an achievement in itself. The raw data sets are eagerly awaited by academic stakeholders in many countries.

2. Reaching out to external audiences  

Thanks to their fluent narrative, the Greenberg Research reports create the opportunity for a wide audience - humanitarian players, researchers, media, NGOs, international organizations, National Societies etc. - to participate in the listening process, its first findings and its further potential, and become involved in the issue.

  • Target actors and audiences are being mapped out, and mailings of the reports are scheduled to begin in May 2000.

  • Starting in June, an ICRC team will tour National Red Cross and Red Cresce nt Societies and major media and institutions for in-depth promotion and discussion.

  • the 12 ICRC delegations involved in the 1999 consultation have started to feed the results back to communities and interlocutors in their countries. Through seminars, meetings and bilateral contacts, the ICRC is receiving first reactions and is setting up ad hoc dissemination programmes accordingly, in particular in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Nigeria and Israel.

3. In-house reflection and exposure  


To exploit both the methodology and findings to their full potential, the ICRC needs to do further work on the ground and at headquarters:

  • in the field, two-day workshops are planned in each of the 5 ICRC regions throughout the year. The aims are to review the practical experience gained during the consultation and make it usable for other areas and to identify outreach activities using the consultation results and methodology. A first regional workshop was held at the Moscow delegation on 26/ 27 April.

  • At headquarters, the Protection and International Law & Communication Divisions have started a process to spark off reflection on the implications of the People on War methodology and findings for the ICRC's operational, legal, and communication practice. The first significant outcome of the project is expected to be a change of trend, away from traditional advocacy - talking on behalf of the victims - to genuinely interactive campaigning - giving a voice to the people affected by war themselves.

4. Development of the people on war website was opened on 20 May 1999 with the objective to serve as a communication support of the Conventions'50th Anniversary campaign, with the publication of the worldwide consultation reports and victims'testimonies. At a first stage it was used to feature background information on the campaign, stories and testimonies gathered in the field, and portfolios of powerful pictures, with an online questionnaire based on the " real " questionnaire used for the consultation. As the People on War consultation went on, the general architecture was transformed in order to display the incoming results beside the project-related background news. On 12 October 1999, the first six " People on War " consultation reports were released publicly, and today all reports are available.

In addition, Cross Fire , an interactive multimedia piece based on audiovisual material gathered in the field, was published on the site. It features video interviews with combatants and civilians talking about their experiences on battlefields, as well as journalists and academic. It explores the dilemmas these people face and asks the viewer to make decisions about how wars should and could be fought.

The site has generated growing popular interest, with a record of more than 12,000 page requests on 12 August 1999, the 50th anniversary day of the Geneva Conventions, and September statistics indicating an unprecedented number of 70,000 page requests with an average connection of 6/7 minutes long. This audience increase was due to more intensive online marketing by the ICRC's partner Oneworld online(, the largest social justice portal on the net connecting more than 700 non-governmental and international organisations.

The fact that the site was recently nominated for the festival award for the best new social justice-oriented site may serve as an indication of its favourable position in the internet community .

  • In 2000, the site will further improve current features and develop new ones, exploiting the huge audio-visual material collected in the course of 1999. New material (focusing on eye witness accounts and images) will be collected in the field to feed production.

  • Another " Crossfire " is under construction and, to make it more user-friendly, the structure of the module is being upgraded on the basis of users'feedback. It should be on line by the end of May. On this occasion, will launch another major online marketing operation to promote the site.

 Available Reports  


All reports are either available as hard copies or on, with a country report and executive summary, plus the possibility to download the entire report.

1. The Global report (incl. Switzerland)

2. Afghanistan

3. Bosnia and Herzegovina

4. Cambodia

5. Colombia

6. El Salvador

7. Georgia (incl. Abkhazia

8. Israel, the Occupied territories and the autonomous territories

9. Lebanon

10. Nigeria

11. Philippines

12. Somalia

13. South Africa

14. France, United Kingdom and United States 

15. Russia 

16. Parallel Report

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