The Solferinos of Today – Views from the Field

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Today marks the 150th anniversary of the event that lay the foundation for international humanitarian law and humanitarian aid. The grueling battle of Solferino saw the launch of Henry Dunant’s campaign that resulted in the four treaties of the Geneva Conventions setting today’s standards for humanitarian law.

This year also marks the 90th anniversary of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.

The ICRC, which owes its existence to Solferino, commissioned an opinion survey about the needs and expectations of people in eight of the most troubled places in the world (Afghanistan, Colombia, DRC, Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia, the Philippines).

Not surprisingly, the study concludes that armed conflict causes extreme widespread suffering. Almost half of the people surveyed have personal experience of armed conflict. Numbers are topping in Haiti, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Liberia, where almost everyone is affected. Around half of the people with conflict experience are displaced or have lost contact with a close relative. Almost one-third have lost family members.

Contrary to what we probably would expect, people in these eight countries are optimistic about the future. All the same, anxiety and sadness rises and trust declines as a result of conflict.

Traumatic events are the main cause for people’s fears. Economic hardship and displacement are the issues people fear and also experience the most. This is only topped by the peoples’ fear of losing a loved one (38 percent). This, however, doesn’t reflect actual experience: People more often experience separation from relatives than their death.

For support, people turn to their own communities and to formal organizations like the ICRC and national Red Cross societies or the UN. These are also those who are able to reduce suffering. Many people also see the news media and journalists as playing an important role in providing relief. Interestingly enough, in Haiti, the military is mentioned as the first source of assistance.

People’s most urgent needs in armed conflicts are food, security/protection, medical treatment and shelter. Receiving this kind of help, however, is not straightforward. Corruption hinders the distribution of aid, along with social discrimination, black markets, inaccessible locations and, perhaps most disturbingly, a lack of knowledge that help is available.

The survey also reveals that people in armed conflict have a clear idea about what direct action the international community should take: provide peacekeepers, give emergency aid, facilitate peace negotiations and intervene militarily to stop conflict. Understandably, economic sanctions are not wished for.

Finally, what do they expect us, the people outside of conflict areas, to do? They ask us to donate goods and money, support organizations active in conflict zones, and become volunteers.

The ICRC will follow up this opinion survey with more in-depth research later this year. The organization also launched a special campaign, “One world. Your move,” in 2009 to draw attention to the humanitarian challenges facing the world today. The campaign’s interactive website provides a wealth of information on the history of international humanitarian war, the humanitarian challenges and personal stories as well as a blog.

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