Report Launch: The Roots of Restraint in War

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To date, the bulk of the ICRC’s work in this domain has focused on State militaries and armed forces, such as the different branches of the U.S. and Canadian armed forces and to ensure that International Humanitarian Law, or IHL, is incorporated into their doctrine and directives, into the regular training of soldiers and into the disciplinary mechanisms designed to enforce compliance with the rules of war. As such, it has focused predominantly on the formal norms prescribed by IHL.

The ICRC has also engaged with many non-State armed groups, encouraging them to adopt codes of conduct which allow their fighters to understand and comply with the norms of IHL. However, over the last decade, the nature of conflict has drastically changed and the number of non-State armed groups without a hierarchical command structure have grown in numbers – all meaning that it has become increasingly difficult to disseminate and train soldiers on IHL.

Because of these changes, this report sets out to understand what exactly influences the behavior of armed groups and how the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations can exercise positive influence for humanitarian outcomes.

Major findings from The Roots of Restraint in War:

  • The number of parties fighting in conflicts has grown exponentially. More armed groups have emerged in the last six years than the previous 60, the bulk of which are organized loose alliances. ICRC is the global reference organization on IHL. As the conflict environment becomes more complex and fragmented, ensuring that these rules are followed becomes harder.
    • Only one-third of conflicts today are between two parties.
    • Nearly half of all conflicts (44%) have between three and nine opposing forces
    • Nearly one-quarter (22%) of all conflicts have more than ten opposing forces.
    • Some conflicts have hundreds of parties. By the end of the war in Libya (October 2011), 236 separate armed groups were registered in the city of Misrata alone. The Carter Center counted over 1,000 armed groups fighting in Syria in 2014.
    • In 2017, approximately 40% of States experiencing armed conflict were confronting jihadi groups. The vast majority of all foreign interventions are currently against armed groups with a jihadist agenda.
  • The intensity of training in IHL makes a difference to battlefield conduct, as does tailoring training to each armed force and each level within that armed force.
  • Training that combines a focus on the law and the values underpinning it is most effective. The role of law is vital in setting standards and ICRC has traditionally focused training in this way. Yet, the persistence of sexual abuse and hazing rituals in armed forces or groups points to the continued strength of informal norms. Survey data shows that combining formal and informal socialization mechanisms in training offer a more durable way of promoting restraint.
  • Understanding the organizational structure of armed groups is key in identifying decision-makers and indicating the levers of influence on their behaviour. The more decentralized a group, the more diverse its set of potential influences, and therefore the more open to external influence.
  • Youth make up the bulk of present and future fighters. It is vital to find innovative ways, including via digital means, to reinforce norms of humanity among them, adapted to contexts and values.