Is it ever legitimate to target civilians as well as fighters in war zones? Half of the British public believe it is, according to a new survey. Laura Smith reports on our changing attitudes to combat

Five in 10 Britons believe it is legitimate to target civilians in war, compared with just three in 10 before September 11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, new research has found.

A survey by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which works with the victims of war, found that only half of those questioned believed that military engagement should be limited to targeting combatants only, with civilians completely left alone down from 72 per cent eight years ago.

Worryingly, those who had served in the military, and should therefore have a better understanding of legal safeguards during war, were more likely to believe that targeting civilians was legitimate, with seven in 10 agreeing. Nearly five in 10 people also believe that it is inevitable that atrocities will take place during war rising to seven in 10 among those who have served in the military.

The findings emerged from "People on War", a survey of 1,000 Britons commissioned by the ICRC, which compared the results to the previous survey, carried out in 1999. The ICRC commissioned ICM to carry out the poll to highlight the 30th anniversary of two important pieces of international law the Additional Protocols I and II, which were added to the 1949 Geneva Conventions in 1977.

The protocols strengthen the law protecting civilians and the wounded during wartime and emphasise the duty on warring parties to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and ensure that civilians are not targeted.

Yves Daccord, director of communications for the ICRC, says changes in the way conflicts are reported in the media since the late Nineties have impacted on the way people see war. "It is always difficult to measure but we can certainly say that what we have seen since September 11 is changed attitudes," he says.

"When you see so much violence against civilians with 9/11, hostage taking, Abu Ghraib etc, how could you think it was realistic that civilians would be protected during war?"

But he stresses that it is important to look at the findings in their wider context. Importantly, when people were presented with specific tactics or scenarios and asked whether they were wrong or should be used as part of war, there was strong support for protecting all civilians.

When asked in the survey about whether civilians should be denied medicine, food and water to weaken the enemy, 76 per cent of those questioned said this was wrong up from 58 per cent in 1999, while 85 per cent said it was wrong to take hostages also up from 76 per cent in 1999.

"People's basic positions in relation to generic scenarios might go one way but when you present them with specific things such as denying people food and water, the answers are very different," says Daccord. "Far from being worrying, it is encouraging that British people have such a strong opinion about what is right and wrong in war time. Public opinion is important, as it can lead to pressure to do the right thing to respect the law. Of course things still go wrong, violations are committed and that is when it is important that the ICRC is present to draw attention to them and to try to prevent their reoccurrence. If there wasn't that pressure things could be 10 times worse."

Founded in 1863, the ICRC is an independent humanitarian organisation which has a mandate under the Geneva Conventions to protect and assist victims of war and internal violence. As well as providing humanitarian assistance such as food and shelter to those affected by conflict, it negotiates with armed forces and armed groups, reminding them of their obligations under international law, and collects information on violations which are then passed on to the relevant authorities.

The organisation has offices in 60 countries and operations in more than 80, including Somalia, Israel and Palestinian Territories, Colombia, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. The ICRC's largest current operation is in Sudan, where it has worked since 1978. Nearly 2,000 staff are stationed in the country, working with more than half a million people in rural villages and nomadic communities and thousands more in the camps for those displaced by the conflict in the western region of Darfur.

Daccord welcomes the fact that 30 years after Protocols I and II were added to the Convention, there remains such strong public opinion about what should be permitted during war. "I was struck by the fact that on prisoners of war, people still fundamentally believe that torture is something that should not be done even though during the past five years governments have tried to say these are tough times and torture may be necessary," he says.

Encouragingly, awareness of the Geneva Conventions is higher now than in 1999, with 92 per cent of those surveyed knowing what they are, compared with 86 per cent eight years ago. Understanding of the obligations towards prisoners of war was also high, with around four in five people aware of the requirement to allow prisoner visits from an independent organisation and not to subject prisoners to torture, even to obtain important military information. On the subject of weapons, meanwhile, the vast majority were against the use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and seven in 10 felt that cluster bombs should never be used.

Asked what could be done to reduce war casualties, there was strong support both for improving the accuracy of weapons and increasing the effectiveness of laws governing what can be done during war. Daccord says these findings support the stance of the ICRC, which works to uphold international humanitarian law. "The law is not perfect but the answer is not to introduce more laws. The issue is to implement to respect the existing law," he says.

"Some countries are doing what they can but there is room for improvement. What the ICRC is saying is that there are basic rules on war and that if you don't obey those rules, you can be held accountable. There are the tools to make that difference. If fighters know that even in 10 years' time they may be arrested and prosecuted in national or international courts, that will change the way they behave."