We live in a turbulent period of armed conflict, mass migration, divisive politics and uncertain futures. Our smartphones and TVs bring us a continuous stream of images showing a world that is full of suffering, with hospitals bombed, populations besieged, civilians targeted and millions uprooted from their homes. Advances in technology and communication mean that we know more than ever about what happens in war, including atrocities that can occur. We also hear concerns about the efficacy of international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, and whether laws that were written decades ago are effective and pertinent today.
In this face of this suffering and these concerns, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) commissioned WIN/Gallup to carry out a global survey on public attitudes towards war and the rules of war, including 17,000 people from 16 countries. Survey participants were living in countries in conflict, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan and Yemen, as well as powerful countries fighting wars, like the United States and Russia. They were asked questions on a variety of issues such as the protection of civilians, attacks against hospitals, treatments of detainees and the role of the international community in ensuring respect for the rules of war.
We found that people living in countries in conflict believe that law matters, and the majority of all participants think it still makes sense to impose limits on how laws are fought. Most people thought that health facilities should be protected in war, and that cultural property should not be attacked.
But the survey digs deeper, and it begins to unveil how Americans and people from across the globe perceive war and the rules governing the conduct of armed conflict in this era of mass communication. Among the most interesting findings are those on torture, which show that only 54% of Americans think it's "wrong" to torture, while 46% consider it to be "a part of war" to torture an enemy combatant in order to obtain important military information. (This, despite the fact that torture is illegal at all times and everywhere.) The U.S. had the third highest number of people who think it's normal to torture behind, Israel and Nigeria. Globally, 36% of respondents said torture was just a "part of war" - up from 28% in a similar 1999 survey.
Support for the protections afforded by the Geneva Conventions has also fallen. In 1999, 52% of respondents said that the Geneva Conventions prevented wars from getting worse. Today, that number has dropped to 38%. More people, however, living in conflict-affected countries rather their counterparts in peaceful countries say people would be less inclined to flee if the laws of war were better followed. Not surprisingly, 8 out of 10 people in countries in conflict also feel more strongly that attacking populated villages and towns is wrong. In the P5 countries, only half of the respondents shared this view. With wars increasingly moving to cities, urban violence and the protection of civilians should be of global concern -- not just for those countries witnessing it first-hand.
As wars continue to rage throughout the world, and technology brings those conflicts into everyone’s living room, it is important to remember that the Geneva Conventions were created for a reason – to impose limits on war, to protect civilians – and that people around the world agree that we need those limits.