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Red Cross: More tolerance toward war crimes

Vincent Haiges
December 5, 2016

Generally, people polled in 16 countries rejected war crimes. Yet, in some places, the number of people who view torture and bombing civilian areas as legitimate has grown since 1999, IRCR spokesman Ewan Watson told DW.

Syrien Aleppo Menschen zwischen Trümmern
Image: Getty Images/AFP/K. Al-Masri

The International Red Cross Committee (ICRC) polled more than 17,000 people in 16 countries about their views on a range of issues relating to war. The survey, entitled "People in War," shows a strong disconnect between public opinion on the one hand, and politics and actions of states and armed groups on the other, especially in permanent members of the UN Security Council.

DW: What are the most worrying findings from the report?

Ewan Watson: People agree that war should have limits, but if you ask them specific questions it gets more difficult for them to see clearly what the right answer should be. One is that 36 per cent of respondents believe that it is okay to torture captured enemy combatants, despite the fact that this contravenes international law. And only 40 per cent in the P5 countries - USA, UK, France, Russia and China - think that it’s wrong to attack an enemy in populated areas, knowing that many civilians will be killed.

How do you explain this shift in public opinion?

Schweiz Ewan Watson
Ewan Watson is Head of Public Relations at ICRCImage: ICRC

With all the images we receive from the world front lines via internet we, in countries not affected by war, have a distance to the reality of people's suffering.

People must hold onto their empathy and not become numb to what is happening on the front lines.

It’s also important for our politicians to avoid rhetoric that demonizes the enemy. Instead, we have to remember that the enemy is ultimately also a human being and deserves to be treated accordingly.

How did the whole "War on Terror" rhetoric affect public opinion on torture?

That definitely has gripped popular culture. If you look at films which show torture in action, this notion of the ticking time bomb, that you must torture somebody to reveal information that will stop something tragic happening. All that provides a kind of rational framework for torture to happen. In fact, studies have shown that torture is not a method to obtain valid information. What it does is just create enemies for life. This is in a sense ironic - that people are more receptive to torture, which then creates the potential for hatred and revenge. Hence, it creates a vicious circle.

The International Humanitarian Law should constrain state and non state actors in war, for example not to attack healthcare infrastructure. However, this is exactly what we see on a daily base, be it in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan or elsewhere. How can IHL be more applicable? 

States and non-state groups have to realize that the law won't stop them from winning. The law is not a constraint to win a particular battle, or even a war. On the contrary, it provides a framework. We all need a framework in life, if you don’t have a framework, then what is there? Especially in war, what are you left with? You are left with complete chaos, you are left with impunity. When we discuss this with all types of groups and states there is awareness that such a framework is necessary.

More efforts have to be made to find ways to respect the law. That also leads to an understanding that: a) It doesn’t stop you from winning, and b) It helps the rehabilitation in a country after a war because if certain violations have been avoided, if the law has been respected, then it's easier to go back to peace because this feeling of revenge and hatred has not been built up. So, for us, it’s about persuading people about the value of this law and to convince states to get behind it and see the value and usefulness of it. The study shows clearly that people do see the usefulness of having limits on war. So what we are saying, states please act on that.


Ewan Watson is Head of Public Relations at ICRC in Geneva.

The interview was conducted by Vincent Haiges.