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Survey results show support for laws of war

7 August 2009

A man wearing a red cross emblem trains soldiers in the laws of warBoris Heger/ICRCThe 1949 Geneva Conventions are just as necessary today as when they were signed 60 years ago, but many of the people they are designed to protect do not know they exist.

These are the findings of an opinion poll on what people in countries affected by war consider acceptable behaviour and on the effectiveness of the Geneva Conventions.

The poll was commissioned by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to mark the 60th anniversary of the conventions on 12 August. It was carried out by the Ipsos Agency in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia and the Philippines.

Limits to combat

“Most of the 4,000 people surveyed across the eight countries – 75 per cent – say there should be limits to what combatants are allowed to do in the course of fighting,” said the ICRC’s director for international law, Philip Spoerri. “But when asked if they had ever heard of the Geneva Conventions, slightly less than half said they knew such rules existed. Among them, around 56 per cent believe the conventions limit the suffering of civilians in wartime.”

In Liberia, 65 per cent of respondents said they had heard of the conventions. Among that group, a striking 85 per cent of people said the treaties had a "great deal" or a "fair amount of impact".

In stark contrast, while roughly the same number of people in Lebanon said they were aware of the conventions, only 36 per cent of them thought that they were effective in limiting suffering.

Unacceptable behaviour

"The findings reveal broad support for the core ideas behind the Geneva Conventions, and international humanitarian law as a whole, by people who have actually lived in conflict- and violence-affected countries.

“I find it very encouraging that despite having faced the horrors of fighting, people tend to agree that certain types of behaviour are unacceptable. These include killing civilians, kidnapping, torture, attacks on religious monuments, looting and sexual violence," Philip explained.  

"Yet the survey also shows that the perceived impact of the rules on the ground is far weaker than the support for them. We view this as a strong indicator that people in war-affected countries want to see better respect for and implementation of the law. So does the ICRC," he concluded.

Learn about the Geneva Conventions 

Find out more about our work in conflicts 

For teachers: Ten-minute briefing on the laws of war 


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