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What restrains armed actors from committing atrocities?

Events and highlights / Videos 3 mins read

What are the factors that lead armed actors to restrain from committing violations of international humanitarian law (IHL)? This question lies at the heart of the update of ICRC’s “Roots of Behaviour in War” study, on which a team of researchers has recently embarked. On 28 April 2016, this team gathered at the Humanitarium in Geneva to present the upcoming new study.


  • Fiona Terry, Research Advisor, ICRC
  • Brian McQuinn, Research Advisor, ICRC


  • Basir Feda, Project Officer, Berghof Foundation
  • Andrew Bell, Post-doctoral Research Fellow
  • Naomi Pendle, Doctoral Candidate, London School of Economics
  • Oliver Kaplan, Assistant Professor, University of Denver
  • Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, Professor, Colombia National University

About the event

As the host of this interactive panel discussion, the ICRC gave the floor to the researchers involved in the update of the ICRC Study on the “Roots of Behaviour in War”. The event not only offered a first-hand insight into the set-up and methodology of the upcoming study, but also allowed the researchers to present some of the key research questions and hypotheses they had examined in their previous research. The event was part of the ICRC Conference Cycle on “Generating respect for the law”.


The ICRC Study on the “Roots of Behaviour in War” was published in 2004 and recommended encouraging the integration of IHL into the doctrine, training and disciplinary regimes of armed forces and groups. The initial Study strongly influenced the development of new policies and practices in the ICRC aimed at strengthening respect for IHL among soldiers and other fighters.

This study is now being revisited by a team of leading experts in the behavior of armed groups led by ICRC Research Advisors Fiona Terry and Brian McQuinn. Taking multidisciplinary expertise from the fields of social anthropology, international relations and political science, the research team comprises a number of experts who have done extensive research in countries including Afghanistan, South Sudan, Colombia and the United States.

Why was there a need for an update?

The strategy of integration mentioned above, which was the main recommendation of the 2004 Study, requires a vertical, hierarchical structure to succeed; yet the last decade has seen a proliferation of small armed groups in conflicts all around the world that are organized horizontally, across loosely-affiliated networks.

What are the aims of the updated Study?

The aims of the updated Study are twofold: first, to test what impact the integration of IHL norms has had on the behaviour of those fighting in vertically-organized groups; second, to explore how norms of restraint form in horizontally-organized groups and how the ICRC can influence such groups.

The different expertise, backgrounds and approaches of the researchers involved will allow the team to not only look at why violations occur but also what restrains people from committing violations. Therefore this new ICRC Study will be called “The Roots of Restraint in War”.

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