People on War: Canadians’ changing attitudes on torture and warfare

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) exists to protect those who are not, or who are no longer, fighting in an armed conflict, as well as limits the methods and weapons used in warfare. This year, over 17,000 people from 16 different countries were asked what they thought about IHL and the limits to war. The exact same questions were asked nearly 20 years ago, which means we can get insight into people’s views on IHL, and how those views have changed over time.  These findings can be found in People on War report published by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Amongst the findings were that over 8 out of 10 believe it is wrong to attack hospitals, ambulances and healthcare workers to weaken the enemy.  When asked, 79% of Canadians believed it was wrong to attack healthcare workers and facilities, while 13% said that this was part of war. Under IHL, healthcare workers and facilities are protected, and are not to be targeted.

Almost 6 out of 10 said it was wrong to attack enemy combatants in populated villages or towns in order to weaken the enemy, knowing that many civilians would be killed. When the same question was asked in 1999, nearly 8 out of 10 said it was wrong. 79% of Canadians said that when attacking enemy combatants it was important to avoid civilians as much as possible. IHL states that it is illegal to directly attack civilians and to indiscriminately attack populated towns and areas – precaution needs to be taken to avoid harming civilians, their homes, and their means of survival.

The survey also examined attitudes towards methods of war. One of the changes in responses had to do with torture. In 1999, 66% of people said it was wrong to torture enemy combatants in order to obtain information – in 2016, 48% of people asked said it was wrong. Torture and all forms of ill-treatment are absolutely prohibited by international treaty and customary law. There are no exceptions, whatever the circumstances.

Since these questions were asked in 1999, war has changed. As we can see by people’s responses, our attitudes towards what is and is not part of war has also changed. The law is still clear, and IHL exists to put a limit to war. Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC, said, “The rules of war establish limits. Wars without limits are wars without end. And wars without end mean endless suffering. We must never allow ourselves to become numb to human suffering.”

Do you agree or disagree with the answers given? Take our survey and tell us what you think. 

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