Despite overall support of Geneva Conventions, Red Cross survey indicates many Canadians uninformed on rules of war

December 05, 2016

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) today released a new report, People on War, accompanied by a detailed survey of Canadians. The survey found that while over three quarters of Canadians believe it still makes sense to impose limits on war, an astonishing 31 per cent of Canadians indicated they believe that humanitarian aid workers being killed or injured while delivering aid in conflict zones is a part of war. Further, 13 per cent of Canadians feel that attacking hospitals, ambulances and health care workers in order to weaken the enemy is part of war.

“It is encouraging to see that a majority of Canadians believe there are limits to what can be done in times of war,” said Hossam Elsharkawi, Vice President, International Operations, Canadian Red Cross. “However we need to move beyond this basic acceptance to firmly support the importance of universal human rights in conflict zones. The humane treatment of all those involved is paramount and accepting anything less sets us on a dangerous path.”

 Internationally, more than half of respondents agree that enemy combatants not respecting the laws of war do not give combatants on the opposing side the right to do the same. The laws of war include prohibition of torture and all other forms of ill-treatment, the belief that everyone has the right to health care in armed conflict, that the deliberate targeting of civilians is prohibited, and the protection of vulnerable migrants fleeing their homes. This is in addition to the many civilian casualties that occur.

“While images of war can lead to a sense of desensitization here in Canada, where we are fortunate to experience relative safety, we cannot lose sight of the human cost of armed conflict,” said Elsharkawi. “International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Conventions are in place to protect the sanctity of human life, as well as ensure that both sides are treated with humanity.”

Other key findings include:
  • 10 per cent of Canadians feel there are circumstances in which it is acceptable for combatants to target health care workers in a situation of armed conflict. Of this group, over half indicated it is acceptable when health care workers are treating enemy combatants and 71 per cent indicated it’s acceptable if they are not clearly identified as health care workers.
  • 21 per cent of Canadians surveyed did not feel that during conflict civilians should be avoided as much as possible during attacks on enemy combatants.
  • Only 33 per cent of Canadians were familiar with International Humanitarian Law, with 43 per cent believing the Geneva Conventions make no real difference in preventing wars from getting worse.
  • Internationally, a startling 36 per cent of respondents believe that captured enemy combatants can be tortured to obtain important military information. Only slightly less than half of the people (48 per cent) asked this year believe this behaviour is wrong, compared to 66 per cent in a 1999 survey.
  • 78 per cent of people living in countries affected by war said it was wrong to attack enemy combatants in populated areas, knowing that many civilians would be killed. In the permanent member countries of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), only 50 per cent of people said it’s wrong.
The survey is the largest of its kind ever carried out by the ICRC with findings focused on how people around the world perceive a range of issues relating to war. The Red Cross encourages Canadians to take the time to educate themselves on the important topic of International Humanitarian Law by accessing free online training at
About the Canadian Red Cross
Here in Canada and overseas, the Red Cross stands ready to help people before, during and after a disaster. As a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – which is made up of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and 190 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies – the Canadian Red Cross is dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity in Canada and throughout the world.

For more information, contact:
Canadian Red Cross English Media Line: 1-877-599-9602
Canadian Red Cross French Media Line: 1-888-418-9111