makes people behave the way they do in war?
by Jean-Jacques Frésard and Daniel Muñoz-Rojas
dissemination of international humanitarian law (IHL) has long
been a priority for the ICRC, and many National Societies are
also active in its promotion. But is it really possible to influence
those who, directly or indirectly, are actors in war? Are there
ways to change their perceptions and behaviour? A recent ICRC
study attempted to find some answers.
This woman has identified the photo of her
son killed in Grozny, Chechnya, Russia Federation.
©Thierry Gassmann / ICRC
In 2001 the ICRC decided to delve deeper into the whole issue
of behaviour of combatants in wartime to better understand
what makes them tick. That knowledge would help it to develop
more effective communication strategies with the ultimate
goal of obtaining better respect for IHL by weapons-bearers
and others who wage war.
Tackling this subject was no small undertaking. The study
sought answers to a range of questions: Are human beings in
war by definition bound to commit atrocities? Is lack of awareness
of IHL the cause of violations? In sum, what is it that decides
whether a fighter violates — or respects — IHL?
The study consisted of four parts: a thorough analysis of
the data gathered in the context of the People on War study;(1)
interviews with several hundred fighters (or former fighters)
from both regular and irregular forces in four countries —
Colombia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and the Democratic
Republic of the Congo; a questionnaire submitted to delegates;
and lastly, an analytical review of the some of the literature
on the origins of behaviour in war.
When analysing the fighters' responses, a significant mismatch
emerges between their knowledge of humanitarian norms and
their limited inclination to respect them in the event of
hostilities. Awareness of the existence of a norm, it seemed,
was not sufficient to ensure a favourable attitude(2)
towards it. By the same token, a favourable attitude did not
in any way imply that the behaviour of a fighter in a real-life
situation would conform to IHL.
This gulf between awareness of and application of norms is
the result of a series of mechanisms which lead to moral disengagement
of the fighter and the commission of violations of IHL. As
a general rule, the moral disengagement of a fighter is the
product of his or her membership of a group and within a hierarchy,
where submission to authority and conformism play an essential
role. To this reality can be added the justification of violent
One of the reasons often cited to justify failure to respect
IHL is that those who commit reprehensible acts often perceive
themselves not as torturers, but as victims. They feel themselves
to be victims, they are told they are victims, and that gives
them the right to kill or commit atrocities. This status of
being a victim and the real or imagined threat of becoming
one again justifies the resort to any means to obtain justice.
Another reasoning often used is that a people, ethnic group
or country which is fighting for its survival cannot afford
the luxury of humanitarian considerations and rules that may
weaken it. For such people, the end justifies the means. Beyond
straightforward revenge, in which passion often comes into
play, the argument of reciprocity is universally invoked.
The vocabulary used is a constant ally, the use of euphemisms
to refer to war crimes commonplace in time of armed conflict:
one speaks of "police operations", the "clean-up
of a region", "surgical strikes", etc. Modern
methods of warfare, whereby you can kill by remote-control,
facilitate such justifications, especially when the media
are not present to show the realities of a conflict. Last
but not least, there is the justification with respect to
Insidiously, the enemy is demonized and portrayed as vermin.
Ergo, the vermin must be exterminated. Sometimes the enemy
is even compared to a disease that must be eradicated. When
politicians, journalists, scientists and intellectuals dehumanize
the enemy in this way, not only will armed personnel have
less trouble taking arms against him or her, but they can
even rationalize the worst kind of behaviour and convince
themselves that it is a necessity. To the physical distance
is added psychological distance. One denies the other's humanity
by giving him or her despicable characteristics or behaviour:
"We are superior, they are inferior." One can even
blame the victims themselves.
©Jeff Danziger / People on War / ICRC
Orders and sanctions
In short, fighter's behaviour is mainly determined by three
parameters: their membership of a group, which leads them
to adopt the behaviour that conforms with the group's expectations;
their integration into a hierarchical structure, in which
they must obey authority blindly; and the process of moral
disengagement, favoured by a war situation, which permits
the recourse to violence against the person defined as the
enemy. It follows naturally that the training of armed personnel,
strict orders and effective sanctions are the best ways of
obtaining better respect for IHL.
For fighters to respect IHL, the rules must be translated
into tangible mechanisms, and practical measures must be taken
to ensure their respect. In other words, IHL must be an integral
part of military doctrine, and its rules incorporated in all
orders from top to bottom of the hierarchy, including in non-state
armed groups, as far as is possible.
If an order is not respected, it must be punished. Sanctions
are crucial and can be either disciplinary or penal. It is
essential that the authorities responsible take steps even
for offences less serious than war crimes, thereby enforcing
discipline among the troops at the same time as avoiding a
downward spiral in which violations can become more serious
yet more acceptable in the eyes of those who commit them.
The priority lies, therefore, in influencing those who wield
power over the armed forces, starting with the instigators
of war, who prepare the ground politically, ideologically
and morally for the dehumanization of the enemy.
The strength of the law
Moral disengagement can make it possible to suspend one's
feelings of guilt in the face of inhuman acts and allow a
certain elasticity with respect to values, but these mechanisms
do not make such behaviour lawful. For the ICRC, it is a question
of convincing the authorities, notably the military but also
the leaders of the more or less structured and hierarchical
groups, to respect these norms.
The essence of preventing violations of IHL lies in a better
understanding of the psychosocial factors described above.
Violations of IHL are not a result of a problem with the law
but of the arguments put forward to justify attacking those
defined as the "enemy". Whether or not fighter's
behaviour conforms to humanitarian rules depends on the political
will of the leaders and thus requires an approach which integrates
humanitarian law into the orders, discipline and training
of armed groups.
The priority lies,
therefore, in influencing those who wield power over
the armed forces...
Jean-Jacques Frésard and Daniel Muñoz-Rojas
Jean-Jacques Frésard is an ICRC delegate.
Daniel Muñoz-Rojas is a researcher at the ICRC.
(1) To mark the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions,
in 1999 the
ICRC initiated a vast study in 12 regions affected by war
and five other countries. The study sought the views of some
20,000 civilians and combatants on which rules should be respected
in times of armed conflict and why they were often violated.
The results were published by the ICRC and can be found on
its web site www.icrc.org.
(2) An attitude may be defined as the disposition of an individual
towards someone or something. This disposition is rooted in
stimuli from three sources: cognitive (knowledge that I accumulate),
affective (sentiments that I feel) and behavioural (intentions
and acts that I propose).
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