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Understanding the roots of behaviour of combatants


Understanding what drives the behaviour of combatants and other actors is crucial to shape prevention efforts. It is only by knowing this that we can really influence combatants towards respecting a set of norms.

This insight was not necessarily rooted in the need to better regulate their conduct, but rather in the efforts to increase their efficacy in killing the enemy: after the Second World War, the US Army realized that a majority of soldiers would actually not fire their weapons, even in the heat of battle, out of a “fear of aggression” and the deeply rooted taboo against killing. The military training techniques that were subsequently developed apparently led to a significant increase in the firing rate of US soldiers in Korea and Vietnam, proving that individuals can be conditioned to adopt a more aggressive behaviour through “moral disengagement”.

The horrors of the Shoah and other crimes committed by the Nazi regime led to a deep interrogation on the possibility that any individual might become an agent of a criminal undertaking, independent of any psychopathic predisposition. This disturbing idea is best reflected/captured in the subtitle that Hanna Arendt Hanna Arendt, Political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a German-American political theorist whose works deal with the nature of power and the subjects of politics, direct democracy, authority and totalitarianism. gave to her account of the Eichmann trial: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Regarding obedience to authority figures, the most famous study remains the seminal work of Stanley Milgram Stanley Milgram, Psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) was an American social psychologist, best known for his controversial experiment on obedience conducted in the 1960s during his professorship at Yale. . It was based on a series of social psychology experiments measuring the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience by inflicting physical punishment on other people. Since then, several studies have been devoted more specifically to the reasons why IHL is violated in times of war based on psychological, economic, opportunistic or political factors.

In 2004, the ICRC conducted a study entitled “The Roots of Behaviour in War: Understanding and Preventing IHL Violations”. This study aimed to identify the factors which affect the behaviour of combatants in armed conflict, with a view to better inform the ICRC’s own prevention activities. According to the conclusions of the study, “disseminating” IHL (as the Geneva Conventions put it) has to be seen as a first step only, but one of crucial importance.

Dissemination of information is rarely sufficient on its own, but should be seen as one aspect of a larger effort to build an environment conducive to respect for the law, which includes education, training, and integration of the law into instructions, orders and procedures. Just like in any military drill, which aims to create reflexive actions, military IHL training should aim to internalize norms through attitudinal change, discourse and repetition.

The study also found that in order for IHL to be respected, besides the training of weapons bearers, the law needs to be integrated into orders and instructions, as well as an effective sanctions system. Consequently, the ICRC sought to integrate IHL into military doctrine and regulation, training, equipment and sanctions, rather than simply imparting knowledge of IHL. The study is currently being updated, as explained by Professor Emmanuele Castano Emmanuele Castano, The New School, USA Emanuele Castano is Professor and Chair of Psychology at the New School for Social Research. , chair of psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York, in his interview for the Review. This issue also provides ample space to experts sharing the most recent lessons learnt and reflections in the field of military training and integration of humanitarian law into military orders, with a view to reinforcing the effectiveness of prevention efforts.

As part of the conference cycle, the ICRC hosted a panel discussion at the Humanitarium between seven of the experts involved in the update of the ICRC study on the Roots of Behaviour in War, allowing them to share early findings on factors influencing armed forces and groups to restrain from committing violations of IHL.


On 28 April 2016, the ICRC hosted a conference at the Humanitarium with some of the leading experts involved in the update of the ICRC study "The Roots of Behaviour in War". As part of the ICRC's Conference Cycle on "Generating respect for the law", the conference accompanied the first meeting of these experts in Geneva, highlighting their specific contributions, hypotheses and approaches.

At another event, experts discussed their findings and reflections on the process that leads people to become torturers. The conference aimed at answering how decoding the mechanisms at work in torturers can help tackle the phenomenon of torture. Speakers at the event included Françoise Sironi Françoise Sironi, Université de Paris 8 Françoise Sironi is a psychologist and expert in the psychology of torture, both regarding victims and torturers. She is an assistant professor at Université de Paris 8. , Riccardo Bocco Riccardo Bocco, Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies Riccardo Bocco is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies. , Paul Bouvier Paul Bouvier, ICRC Paul Bouvier is Senior Medical Advisor for the ICRC. He is a medical doctor with specialization in pediatrics and public health. His work at the ICRC focuses on health and ethical issues in humanitarian action, as well as training humanitarian professionals in public health and ethical principles to respond to crises and armed conflicts. and Sophie Barbey Sophie Barbey, ICRC At the time of the event, Sophie Barbey was detention advisor at the ICRC. .


On 3 December 2015, the ICRC held a public conference in the Humanitarium to try to answer the following question: How can decoding the mechanisms at work in torturers help tackle the phenomenon of torture? This was the third such event as part of the Conference Cycle on Generating Respect for the Law.

Over the years, the ICRC has had to adapt its methods of work with multiple and varying actors involved in armed conflicts. The second part of the exhibition at the Humanitarium in Geneva examined how the ICRC learned to engage with different actors during the Cold War. Experience the exhibition by exploring the walk-through below.