A massive global survey on the laws of war includes some striking findings on public attitudes, including large differences of opinion that vary according to where people live. One of the most consistent survey results, for example, finds that people who live in war-torn countries are more likely to respond humanely to questions on the laws of war—compared to the populations of the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) plus Switzerland. The survey results are contained in the 2016 People on War report published by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Monday. I had the opportunity to ask the ICRC’s Director General, Yves Daccord (pictured above) about the survey results. We discussed the marked discrepancies in public opinion across different countries, and implications for compliance with fundamental legal norms.

The survey results provide extraordinary insight into questions about how violations of humanitarian norms might become normalized (in some countries but not others), how exposure to war can deepen—rather than erode—one’s faith in international law, the extent to which taboos such as the torture prohibition in the United States can easily collapse, and the extent to which States’ military practices have become disconnected from the preferences of their domestic populations.

The study was carried out by WIN/Gallup International and reflects the opinions of an astounding number of people (17,000 respondents) in 16 countries. Many of the findings are, or can be, divided into two groups of countries: 10 conflict-affected countries (including Afghanistan, Colombia, Nigeria, and Syria) on the one hand, and the P5 countries + Switzerland, on the other.

1. A global divide in support of humane behavior

Respondents were asked whether certain kinds of military attacks are wrong. Individuals responded differently in countries directly affected by armed conflict compared to people in the P5 countries + Switzerland—but in the opposite way than one might have imagined. Individuals in war-torn countries were far more supportive and respectful of humanitarian norms. Consider five examples:

Question 1: What about attacking religious and historical monuments in order to weaken the enemy – is that wrong or just part of war?
84% in conflict-affected countries said it is Wrong
66% in Permanent Five members of Security Council+Switzerland said it is Wrong
Comparison: United States: 58% said it is Wrong

Question 2: What about attacking hospitals, ambulances and health-care workers in order to weaken the enemy – is that wrong or just part of war?
89% in conflict-affected countries said it is Wrong
79% in Permanent Five members of Security Council+Switzerland said it is Wrong
Comparison: United States: 76% said it is Wrong

Question 3: What about depriving the civilian population of food, medicine or water in order to weaken the enemy. Is that wrong or just part of war?
84% in conflict-affected countries said it is Wrong
66% in Permanent Five members of Security Council+Switzerland said it is Wrong
Comparison: United States: 57% said it is Wrong

Question 4: What about attacking enemy combatants in populated villages or towns in order to weaken the enemy, knowing that many civilians would be killed – is that wrong or just part of war?
78% in conflict-affected countries said it is Wrong
50% in Permanent Five members of Security Council+Switzerland said it is Wrong
Comparison: United States: 36% said it is Wrong

Question 5: If combatants do not respect the laws of war, does that give combatants on the opposing side the right to disrespect them also?
55% in conflict-affected countries said No
46% in Permanent Five members of Security Council+Switzerland said No
Comparison: United States: 44%  said No

*Note: For all of the above findings, including Switzerland alongside the P5 masks an even greater divide between the two groups of countries. As one might expect, Swiss people, on average, were more supportive of humanitarian norms than the other P5 States. Accordingly, Switzerland systematically skewed the results in a direction that reduced the gap between the conflict-affected countries and the P5 countries. Switzerland percentages for Q1 (86% said it is Wrong); Q2 (95% said it is Wrong); Q3 (86% said it is Wrong); Q4 (68% said it is Wrong); Q5 (79% said No).

What might explain the divide between the two groups of States? The data suggest that people who are directly exposed to the ravages of war—rather than experience an erosion of their values and their concerns for humane conduct—may be even more inclined to designate certain inhumane acts as wrongful. Remarkably, the public in the P5 countries may be experiencing the opposite effect—becoming inured to egregious conduct in warfare in far off places.

I asked the ICRC Director General what lessons he draws from these discrepancies. Allow me to quote him at length. Mr. Daccord said:

“Compared to 1999, there is a higher degree of “acceptance” among people living in the P5 countries – China, France, Russia, the US and Britain – that the death of civilians is somewhat an inevitable part of war. I find it deeply troubling that those who live far from hostilities seem resigned that civilian casualties and suffering are somehow normal, and I find it amazing that those who experience war feel, on the contrary, that wars must have limits.
This discrepancy shows that perhaps those who are experiencing war and are directly affected by it, as well as the military, have a much clearer understanding of what’s at stake and of the benefits of applying the rules of war in their reality.
I think people in the P5 countries would feel very differently – and indeed the survey suggests they would – if war was a part of their day-to-day lives. This said, I would hope one would believe, wherever one lives and whatever one experiences, that civilian lives should be spared as much as possible.
The idea that this notion of civilians being casualties of war is becoming normalized is disturbing, and as the guardian of the laws of war, I want to see my organization push back.”

2. A global divide in perceived effectiveness of the Geneva Conventions

Among the 17,000 people who responded to the survey, those who expressed awareness of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions were asked a follow-up question about the effectiveness of international law. If you dig into this data, a now-familiar pattern emerges: approximately half (49%) of people in conflict-affected countries believe that the Geneva Conventions “prevent wars from getting worse.” Far lower percentages of people hold that view in each of the P-5 countries + Switzerland (France (34%); Russia (38%); Switzerland (31%); UK (29%); US (33%))—with the exception of China (50%).

As a law professor these findings made me reflect upon the cynicism toward international law that I often hear expressed by my American law students. The People on War survey suggests that individuals in societies directly impacted by war may be more able to see the value of the Geneva Conventions; for them the importance and effects of the rules may be more salient, more palpable. In contrast, people outside of conflict-affected societies may be less able to appreciate the effects of the Geneva Conventions in warzones.

I asked Mr. Daccord for his view of the survey results in this context. He replied:

“Overall, the survey showed that awareness of IHL has increased since 1999, with almost seven out of ten people saying they are acquainted with the body of law to some extent. In fact, a proportionally greater number of people living in the P5 countries and Switzerland are aware of IHL.
That said, awareness is one thing and understanding is another, and I think that’s where you find a nuanced difference in terms of appreciation. Indeed, if you are watching your city be bombed day after day, if you’ve seen your mother, sister or son killed, if you are living without access to clean water or health care, you are likely to have a much more keen sense of appreciation for the laws designed to protect you and your family. Despite the fact that we are exposed to images of this type of suffering all the time in our news feeds, those of us living in countries far from fighting really don’t have an inkling of what people in places like Aleppo or Mosul are going through. I’m afraid we’ve gone numb to their suffering.”

Mr. Daccord’s last sentence—“I’m afraid we’ve gone numb to their suffering”—is closely connected to empirical research in the social sciences. In an article with social psychologist Paul Slovic and others, I wrote about causal explanations for “psychic numbing” in the face of large-scale humanitarian violations. And our article discussed methods for overcoming such cognitive effects in the deliberations of the Security Council as well as among members of the American public who never see nor hear directly from war victims. Regardless of the solution, the People on War survey is consistent with existing psychological research that examines how psychic numbing works. (For more on this, Professor Slovic’s website is a good place to start.)

3. The fragility of the torture taboo

The prohibition on torture is one area in which conflict-affected countries do not show a higher respect for humanitarian norms. According to the report, “A significantly higher proportion of people in conflict-affected countries agree that a captured enemy combatant can be tortured.” That said, the survey results indicate a disturbing degree of weakness in the anti-torture norm in the United Kingdom and the United States. In particular, 72% of people in the UK and 54% of people in the US said torture is wrong. But when asked specifically about whether an enemy combatant can be tortured, only 50% in the UK and only 30% in the US said it is wrong. That is a precipitous drop in opposition to torture. I raised the topic with Mr. Daccord. Here’s what he said in reply:

“… on a moral level, people say it’s wrong to torture. They get that it’s not only illegal at all times and everywhere, it’s morally reprehensible. It’s just plain wrong. But when you give them a “ticking bomb” type of situation – that perhaps torture could lead to an important military break-through – well, then, you have a quarter of people in Britain and almost half (46 per cent) of people in the US saying, yes, the enemy can be tortured in order to get that information.
The fact of the matter is that the prohibition of torture, and all forms of ill-treatment, is absolute — everywhere and at all times. It is strictly forbidden by international human rights law, US jurisprudence, the United Nations Convention against Torture, and the Geneva Conventions—a body of law embraced by the US and its military since the 19th Century, yet the survey findings suggest a disturbing tendency that public opinion is out-of-line with government policy and international law. One can only speculate as to what this discrepancy can be attributed. Is it a sense of insecurity because of terrorism? Is it popular culture? I don’t have the answer to those questions, but my assumption is that the public space in the Western world is tainted by security concerns, and that fear of ‘the Other’ has become a commodity.”

That last part of Daccord’s statement—his speculation that public support for torture may be because “fear of ‘the Other’ has become a commodity”—is also consistent with recent political science research that shows American public support for torture increases when a suspect has an “Arab-sounding” last name. I discussed such research in Just Security last week. And later this week Just Security will publish a short essay by political scientist James Piazza who has studied such effects with respect to harsh detention practices, and how political leaders can manipulate fears of “the Other” to gain support for such policies.

* * *

There are several policy implications that might flow from the findings in the 2016 People on War report. For here, the goal is simply to understand our world better. For me, one of the deeper puzzles in the report involves the relationship between domestic public preferences and State policy. A leading school of thought in contemporary political science finds that domestic public preferences have the strongest explanatory power for shaping State policy. On that basis, the divide between the domestic public in conflict-affected countries and the domestic public in the P5 makes for a worrying set of interactions at the international level. Yet, one of the lessons of the People on War survey involves a deep disconnect between domestic political preferences and State policy. On the publication of the report today, the President of the ICRC, Peter Maurer reflected on the fact that “the survey shows that there’s a disconnect between the public, who believe that targeting civilians, hospitals and humanitarian workers is unacceptable, and the policies and actions of States … who commit these acts.” And above, Director General Daccord rightfully identifies that in the case of torture the opposite disconnect exists: government policy that disfavors the abhorrent practice, but a public more ready to accept it. Those findings are a good reminder that even if we have a better understanding of what the public thinks about humanitarian norms and the value of the laws of war, other social and political institutions may affect whether their opinions, for better or for worse, translate into government action.


Image: ICRC Director General, Yves Daccord – Wikimedia Commons