The Ethics of Syrian War & the Techniques of Video Advocacy
Posted on May 31, 2013 by Kim Howell
The recent “Fighter, Not a Killer” video campaign uses drawings and animation to teach international rules of war. Through simple drawings and simpler language, the six videos each promote a central principle of ethical war:
“In times of war, not everything is allowed…
“Do not target or attack civilian property or public buildings.”
“Do not use prohibited weapons and do not employ illegal methods of warfare.”
“Respect medics and secure their protection.”
“Treat everyone under your control humanely. Respect detainees or those who have surrendered.”
“Don’t target and attack civilians. Ensure their safety and security.”
“Do not recruit children or use them in hostilities.”
…War has rules, too. A fighter, not a killer.”
There’s little debate that this is the sort of ethical message that’s needed. Setting aside discussion of the regime’s rampant violations, the Institute for the Study of War found that human rights violations perpetrated by the rebels began to surge in February 2012, roughly a year after the beginning of the opposition movement. Videos of abuses by soldiers—unlawful killings, torture, sexual assault, chemical weapons—were once aberrations, but have become commonplace. Only days after the “Fighter, Not Killer” campaign launched, a rebel commander was filmed biting a corpse’s lung.
The campaign’s message around war ethics clearly needs to be heard. The question is: how can a video advocacy campaign best share it?
Many have criticized the “Fighter, Not a Killer” campaign for simplifying complex ethical codes into one-line edicts. An International Desk Coordinator at Brazil’s Globonews TV called it “War for Dummies.” Others have seen it as a patronizing gesture that assumes that these fighters are violent out of ignorance, rather than out of a deliberate strategy to secure funding.
While there may be truth in these critiques, research has shown that media can have a real impact on prejudice and violence in societies scarred by conflict. Listening to a radio soap opera with messages on reducing intergroup conflict actually changed Rwandan’s behaviors and their perceptions of social norms. Critically, the researchers found that group discussion and emotion were critical in making this shift.
So perhaps the most important debate here isn’t the simplification of the message; perhaps the more critical issue is the use of discussion and emotion in the “Fighter, Not a Killer” campaign.
Discussion has already been incorporated into this campaign by the two groups running it— Switzerland-based Geneva Call and the Syrian National Coalition, the main alliance of opposition forces. They’ve integrated the videos into 2-day discussion-based course based on the Geneva Convention. NPR reported this exchange during one such training:
A rebel commander reads the exercise to his group: “The Red Cross guy responsible for medical aid comes to our headquarters to complain. He is worried that we are using an ambulance to transport weapons. Why is he worried?”
The young rebels offer different opinions.
“Because we are using it for military stuff,” says one.
“Because he’s afraid the enemy will hit it?” says another.
The group leader waits for discussion to wind down before he weighs in.
“This is a bad job, it’s a war crime,” he says and then adds, “if the enemy knows we use an ambulance to deliver weapons, then he will shoot at all the ambulances.”
Emotion was the other factor that changed the Rwandan’s behaviors after the media training, and that seems to be largely missing from this video campaign. WITNESS believes that stories put the ‘human’ in ‘human rights,’ and are one of the most effective ways to change opinions and spur action. The drawings do evoke some sympathy—particularly the child, in the video against the use of child soldiers, and the fleeing woman and child in the video against targeting civilians. However, by keeping these campaign videos fairly emotionally detached, this video campaign could be missing out on a greater impact.
Kim Howell is the Online Communications Coordinator at WITNESS. She manages the blog and supports outreach to media and online communities. Follow her at @Kimplicate.