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Only half of all British people think that civilians should be protected from attack during war—far fewer than before the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—according to a survey commissioned by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The findings were presented at a conference in London last month called Dispatches from Disaster Zones, which debated problems that affect journalists and aid agencies in wars and disaster areas and discussed ways to improve the protection of civilians.
War and natural disasters are becoming increasingly linked, as global warming seems to be heightening the risk of violent conflict worldwide, indicated the survey. This was particularly the case in the poorest countries of Africa, Asia, South America, and the former Soviet Union.
The conference heard that 2.7 billion people live in 46 countries where there is a risk that climate change would compound the propensity for violent conflict and which would in turn leave communities less resilient and less able to cope with the consequences of climate change.
For the People on War survey, conducted by the polling group ICM on behalf of the Red Cross, 1000 people in Great Britain were asked if military engagement should be limited to targeting combatants only, with civilians left completely alone. Half the respondents agreed.
In 1999, before the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 72% of people quizzed in a similar poll said that civilians should be afforded protection. However, 57% now think that Britain should not get involved in wars abroad at all—up from 47% in 1999.
Martin Boon from ICM said, “The views on civilians are clearly a very worrying development, but it is reassuring that the survey found the British public feel that there is no need for wars in the modern age.”
More people thought the taking of civilian hostages abhorrent, with 85% opposed to this in 2007 compared with 75% in 1999.
Four fifths of people polled said that prisoners of war should not be subjected to torture even if it was to obtain important military information and that the authorities should allow prisoners to be visited by an independent organisation.
Most people (92%) said that they had heard of the Geneva Conventions, but an increasing number were sceptical about the effectiveness of the conventions.
Yves Daccord, the Red Cross’s communications director, who debated the survey with journalists and aid agency staff, said, “I think the survey shows Britons are much more engaged in the debate about warfare than eight years ago, and there is a lot more ambiguity about issues raised by war.”
Dr Daccord maintained, “Recognising there are limits in wartime—boundaries that cannot be crossed—and that political authorities and armed forces have an obligation to ensure that these limits are respected, is essential.”
This year the Red Cross is launching a campaign to emphasise the need to protect medical institutions and professionals in times of conflict. Dr Daccord told the BMJ that it was essential for British doctors and medical workers to speak out in defence of their colleagues abroad.
People on War: Consultation on the Rules of War is available at www.icrc.org.