Preparing for Peace
The website of the Westmorland General Meeting 'Preparing for Peace' initiative
The human costs of war
Dr Paul Grossrieder
Director General, International Committee of the Red Cross
Public lecture presented at Lancaster University on 13th July 2002
Sickness is felt, health little or not at all.
Though we often focus on the technical aspects of
wars, such as how they are fought, who conducts them, and what causes them to
break out, it is rare that consideration is given to the core of the problem of
war. It is rare that armed conflict is presented in terms of its tragic effects
on individuals and communities. Perhaps the reason for this is to be found in
the very culture of war, which was long considered a matter for professionals.
Indeed, until the Second World War, it was true that war concerned principally,
if not only, combatants and other military personnel. Accordingly, war was
viewed as a series of heroic acts that had only minor effects on civilians. From
Homer's Achilles to the towering generals of the First World War, the great
virtues of the victors, as humans and as warriors, were celebrated. The
sufferings of the people, including women, the elderly and children, were viewed
as slight and unintended. In addition, far fewer people were affected then than
today. The wars of religion were of course horrific, and marked by unspeakable
massacres, but in those wars too the victors were untroubled by such tragedies,
since they fought in the name of divine justice and truth.
From the wars of independence to today's
international terrorism, the situation has changed. Civilian populations have
frequently become the focus of conflicts: combatants take them hostage, and the
civilian victims no longer suffer only as a result of the fighting between
armies, but are themselves directly targeted. Since 1945, 84% of the people
killed in wars have been civilians, and the average annual number of deaths has
been over half a million.
I shall therefore limit my comments to current
conflicts, describe and analyse the many kinds of problems they cause in human
terms. The concrete inhumanity of the wars will appear. What would
anthropologists arriving from another planet and noting the human cost of
today's wars have to say? How can any sense be made of the 24 million people
displaced within their own countries, or of the 18 million forced to flee to
foreign lands? The displacement and emigration are a direct result of the
conflicts. They undermine all efforts undertaken to improve people's lives
within their own countries.
According to a survey carried out by the ICRC in a
more and more wars are being fought against civilians, especially unarmed
civilians. In Colombia, Angola, the Balkans, and eastern Congo for example,
people have regularly been terrorized by groups of combatants. Displaced people,
acting heads of households, and children separated from their parents are among
the victims of this terror. More and more people go "missing", while
women are bought and sold. Some refugees and displaced people have been able to
return home after long periods of conflict, as in Cambodia, Mozambique or El
Salvador. But others, such as all Palestinian refugees since 1948, retain this
"status" for a very long time indeed, for far too long. Over a
million Afghans are living in Pakistan because of a war that began in 1979.
and children, the first victims in today's wars
Security is a major problem for women and children, who are
especially likely to be forced to leave their homes and left to their own
devices, without anyone to protect them from ill-treatment of all kinds.
Conflicts destroy society's very foundations and engender a subculture of
violence where conduct without regard for any rule becomes the norm.
Women are subject to sexual violence, which
can be a form of torture, a means of obtaining information or a punishment for
acts actually or supposedly committed. Sexual violence can also be used to
destroy ethnic identity, or even as a means of war: "Rape and sexual
violence [have] been used to assert dominance over your enemy. Since women's
sexuality is seen as being under the protection of the men of the community, its
defilement is an act of domination asserting power over the males of the other
community or group that is under attack."
Women who have been raped suffer both physical and
social repercussions. If, for cultural reasons or under duress, they have no
other choice but to have their child, they may be ill treated in their community
or completely ostracized. They may be accused of prostitution, adultery or
bringing dishonour upon their families. Children who are born in these
circumstances are also often excluded from society.
At the time of the massive displacements from
Kosovo to Albania, UNHCR noted that there was trafficking in women for the sex
trade. This is one of the problems that can result from population movements in
conflict situations. In some cases, civilians have been forced to leave their
homes and property by parties threatening them with attack as part of an
ethnic-cleansing campaign, or using them as human shields.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs estimates that 80% of displaced people are women and children, which
suggests that they are the most vulnerable people and the first to be threatened
by combatants. Sometimes, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia, men are
prevented from fleeing for ethnic policy reasons. In camps, it is difficult for
women to carry out their traditional roles of preparing meals and caring for the
sick. On a regular basis, their lives are severely disrupted. Women's showers,
for example, may be located too near those of the men, which deprives them of
privacy as they wash. In camps in Tanzania, UNHCR attempted to offer single
women better protection by providing them with orange tents; in reality, this
put them in greater danger, as the tents made them easier to locate.
Civilians' freedom of movement is also impeded
in times of conflict owing to mines, military roadblocks and snipers, the
immediate result of which is that it becomes difficult to obtain food, water and
traditional herbs. Once again, women are especially exposed to danger as they
are expected to perform tasks traditionally falling to men, such as cultivating
fields, conducting business, and feeding livestock.
Access to food and water is sometimes
restricted for military reasons. Heads of households (women or older children)
should, however, be able to move about to perform basic tasks for the sake of
the family's survival. Sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council "to
maintain or restore international peace and security" (Charter of the
United Nations, Art. 39) are also among the obstacles to these tasks being
accomplished. Since the end of the Second World War, the UN has imposed more and
more economic sanctions (such as those against South Africa, the former
Yugoslavia, Haiti, Iraq, Rwanda and Sudan). The risk of famine resulting from
the sanctions should be taken into consideration by the Security Council before
any application of Article 41 of the Charter.
When people are displaced, they find themselves
without the kitchen utensils and stoves needed to prepare food. They may also
lack water, for example because their camp is located outside the area supplied
or because the water available is barely adequate to cover the needs of the
resident population. A lack of water affects the displaced people's hygiene and
consequently their health, as they may suffer from such ailments as diarrhoea,
typhus, cholera, hepatitis A, etc
Conflicts also result in women and children taking
charge of agricultural production. In view of the traditional division of
labour between men and women, this represents a considerable change of role for
women. Even positive social changes such as this one are sometimes accompanied
by tensions, however. After the genocide in Rwanda, for example, great concern
arose about the absence of property rights for widows, who were thus at risk of
being evicted from their farms or prevented from returning to them. During 15
years of war in Sri Lanka, according to the Marga Institute, wheat production
decreased by 27%, onion and potato production by 64% and the quantity of fish
caught by 63%.
Displaced civilians are generally forced to abandon
their livestock and other goods. When this happens, they must seek another
livelihood. In the Congo, in 1994, it was the women who started small commercial
activities, such as sales of bread and fish. The aim of course was to regain a
measure of economic independence.
Life in camps for displaced persons involves health
problems, in particular communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS among women who
have had to engage in sexual relations in exchange for food. Displacements
within infected areas contribute to renewed outbreaks of malaria. Civilians can
be injured in connection with fighting and yet not admitted to hospitals, which
are primarily reserved for combatants. Mine injuries and amputations cause
severe psychological trauma.
In human terms, the worst consequences of war are
connected with the break-up of the family and the collapse of the educational
system. Family members are often separated and without news of each other.
At the end of a conflict, some will be declared "missing". Although it
is families that are directly affected, whole societies are deeply shattered and
relations among groups that were enemies during the conflict are further
damaged. "Suppressing grief can lead to an inability to deal with other
traumas of armed conflict, to lack of healing and to prolongation of the
conflict and of hostilities and divisions within communities; it can even lead
to an unwillingness for reconciliation between different sides."
The lack of teaching in schools during wars has
disastrous consequences on society as a whole, and especially on young people.
In Angola, for example, the school system in the countryside has been
practically non-existent for some 30 years. The only training of any kind that
has persisted concerns the male population only and consists merely of combat
training. Girls are left to their own devices and are illiterate.
The sufferings of host
Despite their suffering, those driven from their
homes are outnumbered by other victims of war. The communities that play host to
them, whether within or outside their own country, are often extremely poor
which does not prevent them from being very hospitable. At the end of 1996,
thousands of people from Kivu offered what little they had to those who were
fleeing from eastern Zaire. Throughout the 1990s war in Liberia, those who fled
the fighting were supported by poor rural communities just as much as by
In 1994, almost all jobs for unqualified workers in
the town of Goma were taken by refugees who had just arrived there. With help
from aid organizations, they were able to accept salaries that were only one
half or even one third of the already low salaries of resident workers.
Communities that play host to displaced people and
refugees may well be the group that is most forgotten.
Children are not always innocent victims. In Rwanda,
more than 40 children have been accused of genocide. According to the Machel
Report, 200,000 children across the world were involved, often voluntarily, in
no fewer than 24 conflicts in the 1990s.
In Sierra Leone in 1995, the Revolutionary United
Front went from one village to another recruiting children and forced them to be
present at, or even to take part in, the execution of their families. They were
then drugged and taken to neighbouring villages to continue killing.
The psycho-social suffering caused by war has only
recently been widely recognized. In Mozambique, 44% of women have witnessed a
murder, 25% have been separated from their children and 30% have been tortured.
Men, women and children who have experienced war suffer among other things from
the deep personal wounds resulting from the loss of family members or friends,
and of personal objects and sources of income, the impact of which generally
cannot be measured in strict economic terms. For such people, life can lose all
meaning, and beliefs and ideals can be called into question. They have witnessed
or have had to take part in atrocities, or have themselves been subjected to
torture or rape. The survivors may feel guilty that they have survived or suffer
from not having done more to prevent acts of violence against others. All this
can cause unbearable trauma. By way of illustration, let us quote the account of
a Sarajevo resident: "I am afraid", he said. "I can no longer go
through a tunnel or cross a bridge. In the tram, I am sometimes dizzy, and I
feel like I want to kill myself or the other passengers. I am constantly haunted
by visions of fighting. My mind is unstable and unwell. My life is ruined."
Thus far, I have considered only the
"direct" human cost, so to speak, of war, i.e. the harm caused by
today's conflicts to civilian individuals and groups. But an even more tragic
situation arises when parties to the conflict, for the sake of economic
advantage or military victory, take entire civilian populations hostage for long
periods of time. In Angola, for example, the government and the armed opposition
both condemned innocent civilians to famine. Now, hordes of barefooted people
are coming out of the bush who are totally destitute and famished. "In
Angola, both [the government and Unita] waged a ruthless war and carried out a
scorched-earth policy that involved taking civilian populations hostage [...].
Dazed and skeleton-like, tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands
of people are waiting for aid to be brought to them." This is the result in human terms of the
so-called "humanitarian blocade" imposed on the population under the
control of the rebel movement.
This description illustrates the degree to which
armed conflicts leave their mark on societies, by breaking them up, destroying
family unity and leaving hopeless, failed communities.
The human consequences of armed movements'
The end of the Cold War brought about a spectacular
decrease in outside support for local wars. As a result, the warring parties in
internal conflicts launched business ventures so as to obtain the wherewithal to
pursue their war efforts. Were it not for their business interests, the Khmer
rouge, for example, could not have survived after Chinese support ended. With
accomplices in Thailand, they began to traffic in precious stones, wood, and
All these activities are illegal. Moreover, the
control of resource-rich territories not the relative well-being of the
people living there is the chief tactical aim of these groups. At the same
time, the destruction of the enemy's resources can be another primary objective.
This change in local conflicts has also led to the formation in developed
countries of diasporas actively supporting rebel movements.
One last scenario is the one that causes local people
to suffer most. When armed movements have no resources available to them in the
territory where they operate, shortages occur. The factions will use any means
necessary to ensure their own survival. They will not hesitate to take whatever
they need by force, even if doing so jeopardizes the local economy that is
sustaining them. This kind of activity is one of the causes of famine in Somalia
and in southern Sudan.
should be done?
In view of the human disaster caused by wars, reason
would seem to require that there be a universal movement to compel all humanity
to tackle the causes of war, so as to eradicate it once and for all and put an
end to the absurdity of its human consequences. Unfortunately, war is not
subject to reason, and the force of emotion, beliefs, and ethnic identity is
such that war repeatedly disrupts the lives of nations. To attempt to slow the
pace and frequency of this chronic recourse to war, and to "humanize"
armed conflicts, remains an all-important duty. How should it be performed?
- The power of images: the images of atrocities in
the former Yugoslavia, in Somalia and Rwanda were part of our mental geography
in the 1990s. In Bosnia and Somalia (and to a certain extent, and belatedly, in
Rwanda), media coverage eventually prompted diplomatic and military action from
Western governments in the summer of 1995. Other conflicts that have been just
as destructive, such as those in Colombia, Liberia and Sudan, have not benefited
from the same degree of coverage.
When the human cost of war is prominently reported,
public opinion intensifies its rejection of violence and strongly insists that
it be stopped, and that "something be done". This puts pressure on
- A need to protect civilians: as soon as wars
break out, policies should be put in place to protect civilians and prevent the
warring parties from targeting them. This amounts to taking the Geneva
Conventions seriously. The Conventions remain up to date in terms of their
content, but suffer from a lack of political will to make sure they are applied.
Changing the subject to the alleged obsoleteness of international humanitarian
law is pointless. To do so is but a pretext for not applying the rules. The
States Parties, if they so desire, are perfectly capable of respecting these
rules and ensuring respect for them. Were they to do so, the human cost of war
would be sharply reduced.
- A need for prevention: if States ever
seriously compared the costs of war with those of prevention, they would
recommend that their foreign ministries negotiate, in the Security Council for
example, preventive deployments of peace-keepers. The cost would be far lower
than that of intervening after a conflict has broken out. In Macedonia, for
example, prevention peacekeeping troops have cost US$ 8 million. Compared with
the US$ 134 million cost of NATO's intervention in Bosnia in 1996, the
investment in Macedonia was well worth it.
- The mobilization of multinational companies:
companies doing business in countries at war should develop codes of conduct and
comply with the principles of international humanitarian law. These companies
cannot be satisfied with merely respecting the environment; they must also
respect the civilian population and local communities.
By way of conclusion, I shall read a few lines
to you from the correspondence of Peter Paul Rubens on the horrors of war and
"fortress Europe" (which is strikingly topical, now as ever). The
passage was written in 1638 when the Franco-Spanish war was laying waste to
Flanders and Picardy. Like the Master's paintbrush, it reveals horror, suffering
and despair in the face of violence, destruction, the crushing of civilization
and general ruin.
"The principal figure is Mars, who has left the open temple of Janus
(which in time of peace, according to Roman custom, remained closed) and rushes
forth with shield and bloodstained sword, threatening the people with great
disaster. He pays little heed to Venus, his mistress, who, accompanied by her
Amors and Cupids, strives with caresses and embraces to hold him. From the other
side, Mars is dragged forward by the Fury Alekto, with a torch in her hand.
Nearby are monsters personifying Pestilence and Famine, those inseparable
partners of War. On the ground, turning her back, lies a woman with a broken
lute, representing Harmony, which is incompatible with the discord of War. There
is also a mother with her child in her arms, indicating that fecundity,
procreation, and charity are thwarted by War, which corrupts and destroys
everything. In addition, one sees an architect thrown on his back with his
instruments in his hand, to show that that which in time of peace is constructed
for the use and ornamentation of the City, is hurled to the ground by the force
of arms and falls to ruin. I believe, if I remember rightly, that you will find
on the ground under the feet of Mars a book as well as a drawing on paper, to
imply that he treads underfoot all the arts and letters. There ought also to be
a bundle of darts or arrows, with the band which held them together undone;
these when bound form the symbol of Concord. Beside them is the caduceus and an
olive-branch, attribute of Peace; these also are cast aside. That grief-stricken
woman clothed in black, with torn veil, robbed of all her jewels and other
ornaments, is the unfortunate Europe who, for so many years now, has suffered
plunder, outrage, and misery, which are so injurious to everyone that it is
unnecessary to go into detail."
(Letter from Peter Paul Rubens to Justus Sustermans
commenting on his painting The Horrors of
War, 12 March 1638.)
Director General, International Committee of the Red Cross
Coomaraswamy, "A question of honour: Women, ethnicity and armed
conflict", International Centre of Ethnic Studies, Third Minority
Rights Lecture, 25 May 1999, Geneva, page 4.
Women Facing War, ICRC, Geneva, 2001, p. 132.
Leone out of the bush", The
Economist, 6 May 1995.
Bushra, J. and Piza Lopez, E., Development
in Conflict: The Gender Dimension, Oxford, p. 63.
Collection Mutations, No. 199/200, January 2001, p. 21.
in Le Monde, 18 May 2002.
analysis is developed by J.M. Balencie, A. De La Grange and J.-C. Rufin in Mondes rebelles, Vol. 1,
Michalon, Paris, 1996.