With fighting intensifying around the Syrian city of Aleppo, a new survey, published on Monday, on how people around the world perceive a range of issues relating to war, indicates overwhelming support in the belief that wars should have limits. It also reveals deeply concerning views on torture and civilian casualties.
The survey of over 17,000 people took place between June and September, in sixteen countries. Ten of those countries were experiencing armed conflict at the time including Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan. The permanent member countries of the UN Security Council (P5 – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) were also part of what is the largest survey of its kind ever carried out by the ICRC.
Eight in ten people surveyed think combatants should avoid civilians as much as possible when attacking the enemy. The same number thinks attacking hospitals, ambulances and healthcare workers, in order to weaken an enemy, is wrong.
However, a startling 36% of respondents believe that captured enemy combatants can be tortured to obtain important military information. Only slightly less than half of the people (48%) asked this year, believe this behaviour is wrong, compared to 66% in a 1999 survey. 16% said they didn’t know.
“In such troubled times, it’s heartening to see that the vast majority of people believe that the laws of war matter. This recognition of basic human values flies in the face of the appalling violations we see on a daily basis in our work”, said the president of the ICRC, Peter Maurer.
“The results also show that we all need to redraw a line in the sand: torture in any form is forbidden. We demonise our enemies at our own peril. Even in war, everyone deserves to be treated humanely. Using torture only triggers a race to the bottom. It has a devastating impact on the victims, and it brutalizes entire societies for generations,” he added.
The survey indicates that if you live in or near a conflict-affected country, you are more likely to respond humanely to questions on the laws of war. In P5 countries, it appears that people are more resigned to civilian casualties and suffering as an inevitable part of warfare:
78% of people living in countries affected by war said it was wrong to attack enemy combatants in populated areas, knowing that many civilians would be killed. In P5 countries, only 50% of people said it’s wrong.
26% of people in P5 countries think depriving the civilian population of essentials like food, water and medicine to weaken the enemy is just “part of war”, compared to 14% in countries affected by war.
“Faced with constant, gruesome images from the world’s frontlines, we must not lose our empathy and become numb to human suffering,” said Mr Maurer. “But the overwhelming message from this survey is that people truly believe in the importance of international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, and the protection of civilians during times of conflict.”
The four Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols seek to limit the effects of warfare on those who do not participate in hostilities, such as civilians or wounded and captured combatants.
“The effectiveness and relevance of the laws of war are being questioned perhaps more than at any time in recent history”, added Mr Maurer. “And yet, it is clear that people do not believe in a battlefield ‘free for all’. The survey shows that there’s a disconnect between the public, who believe that targeting civilians, hospitals and humanitarian workers is unacceptable, and the policies and actions of States and armed groups who commit these acts.”