ISSUE 28
WINTER1999/2000
Peace Matters index
 

 

 

   

people on war – a survey

 
 


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- people on war – a survey



here is good evidence that exposure to war in one’s country causes people to identify personally with those who cannot defend themselves

 


As part of the recent People on War project, the International Committee of the Red Cross conducted surveys in four of the five permanent member countries of the UN Security Council: France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States. These surveys were designed to indicate whether attitudes on war are shared by people with and without direct experiences of conflict. The major conclusions of this comparison between the attitudes in the four Security Council countries and those in the 12 war-torn countries are outlined below:

The vast majority of respondents in the four Security Council countries and the war-torn countries believe in absolute protection for civilians during wartime. Sixty-eight per cent of those in the Security Council countries say that combatants should ‘attack only enemy combatants and leave civilians alone’. Sixty-four per cent of those in the war-torn countries agree. Significant minorities in all countries, however, say that combatants should avoid civilians ‘as much as possible’.

Across a wide range of measures, respondents in the United States demonstrate much greater tolerance of attacks on civilians than do their other Security Council counterparts. A bare majority (52 per cent) say that combatants should leave civilians alone, while 42 per cent say civilians should be avoided as much as possible. The people of the Russian Federation, on the other hand, hold the hardest line against attacks on civilians: 77 per cent favour leaving civilians alone, whilst only 17 per cent choose the conditional option of avoiding civilians as much as possible.

A belief in human rights is cited most frequently by people in both groups of countries as the basis for their convictions that attacking civilians is wrong. Fifty-nine per cent of those in Security Council countries and 49 per cent of those in the war-torn countries offer this response. More than four in ten respondents in the four Security Council countries (43 per cent) say attacking civilians is wrong because it violates a ‘personal code’, compared with 31 per cent of those in the war-torn countries. Law and religion, however, are much more important elements in the thinking of those surveyed in war-affected countries.

There is evidence to suggest that people in countries that have endured extended, chaotic wars where civilians have routinely been casualties – Colombia, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Somalia – are less likely to approve of actions that could harm civilians. They particularly reject the idea that certain actions, such as attacking villages knowing civilians will be killed, are ‘part of war’. Those involved in highly partisan wars in which whole societies are subsumed in the conflict – Georgia and Abkhazia, Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Lebanon and Bosnia-Herzegovina – are more likely to sanction these kinds of actions.

Nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and landmines rank highest among the weapons that people in both groups of countries want to see prohibited. Nearly three in four respondents (70 per cent in the Security Council countries and 73 per cent in war-torn settings) say that landmines should never be used if civilians will be endangered; 26 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively, disagree. But more than one-third of Americans and people in the Russian Federation approve of using landmines.

Understanding of obligations towards prisoners is uneven in both groups of countries; about one-third of respondents in the United States (32 per cent) and the war-torn countries surveyed (31 per cent) believe prisoners can be subjected to torture. There is only minimal support, however, for killing prisoners if the enemy is doing the same. Among the four Security Council countries surveyed, only 11 per cent of respondents say they would approve of killing prisoners in such circumstances, while 85 per cent say they would not approve. For the war-torn countries, the comparable figures are 15 per cent and 80 per cent.

There is good evidence that exposure to war in one’s country causes people to identify personally with those who cannot defend themselves. Respondents in war-torn countries – combatants and non-combatants alike – are twice as likely as those in Security Council countries to say captured combatants deserve to die. Yet when faced with life or death scenarios and difficult personal decisions, they are more likely than their counterparts in the four Security Council countries to say they would save or help a defenceless enemy combatant who had killed someone close to them.

The public in the four Security Council countries surveyed is more likely than the public in war-torn countries to believe that wrongdoers should be punished for breaking laws during wartime, that these people should be put on trial and that international institutions should be responsible for punishing them. Fully eight out of ten respondents in these Security Council countries — compared with 60 per cent in war-torn countries — agree that there are ‘rules or laws that are so important that, if broken during war, the person who broke them should be punished’.

 
         
         
     

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