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Australia, it's time to talk about wars and laws

Our country reveres its Diggers. But do we value the laws that protect them?

Friday December 9, 2016

Judy Slatyer, Australian Red Cross CEO - Photo: Australian Red Cross/Mark Farrelly

Should wars have limits? It's an important question to ask, as almost each week brings terrible reports of civilians killed, hospitals bombed and families fleeing for their lives, somewhere in the world.

This week, a global survey on attitudes to war by the International Committee of the Red Cross found that two out of three people believe that wars should have limits. We agree.

In Australia, we asked a representative sample of the population a very simple question: can a captured soldier be tortured to obtain important military information?

The answer is as illuminating as it is disturbing.

Almost three out of five Australians believe that torturing Australian soldiers is unacceptable under any circumstances; which reflects the law and the Geneva Conventions. Nearly one in four say they did not know if torturing a soldier was okay, and around one in five think that it is okay to torture a soldier for information.

In a country with such a proud history of supporting its soldiers and where people care very much about fellow human beings, this does not seem to add up.   We asked World War II veteran Keith Campbell what he thought. Keith served with the Royal Australian Air Force and was shot down in Germany, miraculously surviving a fall with a damaged parachute. He spent three years in a prisoner of war camp, where he survived on Red Cross rations.

Keith said: "There's absolutely no excuse to torture any person, no matter what their nationality or beliefs. To me, being subject to torture is barbaric."

Are we starting to forget that torture is never acceptable and that it's illegal everywhere around the world? Do we still believe that everyone deserves humane treatment and dignity, no matter what side they are on? If captured, how do we want our soldiers to be treated?

It's time for a national conversation on the limits to war. While a majority of Australians still firmly reject the idea of torturing people in war, many more simply don't know. There's an opportunity to talk about our common humanity and how to protect it.

So here is where we stand, backed by the Geneva Conventions, international humanitarian law that has been signed up to by almost every country on earth.

Wars have limits. Those limits include protecting people who are not part of the fight - like mothers and children - and those who try to help the wounded and sick.

Hospitals, ambulances and health workers are sacrosanct. More than four out of five people around the world agree, and want more done to protect them in war.

The laws of war make a difference even when we don't hear about it. In Syria, for example, we have convinced warring parties to put down their weapons and let us cross frontlines to reach trapped civilians more than 50 times this year. These seem small achievements but they save lives.

One thing that struck me from the survey was that people who live where the bombs are falling are more aware of the laws of war. People from countries experiencing armed conflict right now - like Syria, Yemen and South Sudan - typically said that the laws of war keep things from getting worse. By contrast, people living in peace in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe were more likely to say the laws of war made little difference.

Torture is never acceptable, under any circumstances. It is a dreadful stain on our humanity.

It's heartening to see widespread global support for the laws of war. Despite constant gruesome images from frontlines, despite the demonising of the enemy that happens on all sides, most of us don't want a free-for-all on the battlefield.

In our lucky and peaceful country, we must vigilantly promote and defend the laws of war. We need to remember that the laws of war protect our sons and daughters when they are on duty overseas with our armed forces. These laws spare our soldiers from torture and help to retain some humanity in the midst of war.

Australia, we all have a role to play. We can call on our political leaders to champion the laws of war and continue to respect humanitarian values. We must speak up when children are targeted, when hospitals are bombed or civilians deprived of food and medicine. Never accept that torture is okay.

Judy Slatyer is CEO of Australian Red Cross

Learn more and read the People on War report at    

A condensed version of this article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph