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close this bookCountry Report Cambodia - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 72 p.)
close this folderBreakdown of limits
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDeliberate attacks on civilians
View the documentChaos and the nature of war
View the documentCharacter of the combatants


The ICRC consultation in Cambodia paints a picture of a populace that is fiercely protective of civilians and desperate for peace. Yet nearly 30 years of unceasing conflict have overwhelmed any attempts to separate civilians from combatants and made the concept of a normal, quiet life a seemingly unachievable goal. While political factions, armies, weapons and goals have shifted shape and character, the average Cambodian has borne the brunt of conflicts that are hard to fathom but all too easy to feel.

When asked to explain why soldiers and fighters attack civilians despite known prohibitions, Cambodian respondents are divided between those who see these attacks as the wilful acts of determined forces and those who want to relieve combatants of responsibility for their actions. Forty-one per cent of respondents say combatants are “determined to win at any cost”, 41 per cent say they “don’t care about the laws” and 17 per cent say they attack civilians because they “hate the other side so much”. A large number point to the weak character of combatants: 25 per cent say that they are following orders, 25 per cent that they don’t know the laws; 21 per cent that they are too young to make judgements; and another 22 per cent that they “lose all sense”, are under the influence of alcohol and drugs or are simply afraid. 29

29 The percentages add up to more than 100 because respondents were asked to pick two reasons from among the list.

FIGURE 11. Why combatants attack civilians (per cent of total population responding)

These responses help illuminate three of the key elements that have combined in Cambodia to dissolve the limits in war that are meant to protect civilians: deliberate anti-civilian policies that began under the Khmer Rouge; the chaotic nature of conflict; and the immaturity and ignorance of many combatants. The first of these elements differs from the other two in both intention and importance. Taken together, the three have helped ensure that attacks on civilians have been constant and unrestrained.