Exploring humanitarian law with adolescents
by Sobhi Tawil
What is an enemy?
Is everything allowed in war? Through role playing, young
people in Guatemala and elsewhere in the world are learning
the "rules of humanity".
Nowadays, what role does humanitarian law
play in our children's basic education? Is it a relevant and
useful tool in countering
a culture of armed violence? If so, how
can this be developed and integrated into educational programmes
for youth around the world?
In 1995 the ICRC began supporting an education programme
in seven countries of the former Soviet Union with the aim
of sensitizing teenagers to the principles of international
humanitarian law (IHL) through the provision of relevant texts
in classrooms. An evaluation carried out in 2000 pointed to
a positive impact on the learning process. There were significant
differences in the level of knowledge about IHL and in perceptions
towards key humanitarian concepts between students who had
followed the courses and those who had not. Many students
commented on the influence the course had on the way they
viewed life, the world and their own place in it; most felt
that they would find themselves in a situation requiring the
application of IHL during their lifetime. A few already had
personal experiences of such situations. In the students'
perception, the course was assessed as useful in terms of
"learning about the rules of humanity", "widening
horizons", "introducing international problems",
"evoking compassion" and of being "character-building".
Building on the significant success of school programmes
in the Russian Federation, the ICRC, in association with over
15 partner countries, developed an international and extended
version of the programme called Exploring Humanitarian Law
(EHL). The educational project was tested in 15 countries
and is now ready for implementation worldwide. Key trainers
from partner countries have been invited to participate in
a series of workshops. The purpose of the workshops is to
enable the trainers to become familiar with the major concepts
and methodology of the EHL curriculum so they can adapt the
programme to their own national contexts.
The EHL project was designed by Education Development Centre
(EDC), an international research and development organization
dedicated to education. It consists of five learning modules
for adolescents (aged between 13 and 18) that may be integrated
into existing programmes in secondary schools or in community
education programmes, such as Red Cross or Red Crescent life
skills training workshops.
Rather than provide technical or factual training on humanitarian
law, the EHL modules examine fundamental questions related
to the shared human experience of war. These include: What
is an enemy? What is a humanitarian act? What can bystanders
do? Is everything allowed in war? Where do international humanitarian
norms come from? Why do violations occur? Who is responsible?
Who should judge? What are different ways of ensuring justice?
What are the needs that arise from the devastation of war?
How can we respond to them? It is hoped that discussion around
these questions will encourage a sound understanding of humanitarian
law and related issues.
War-scarred children have no borders.
Cooperative curriculum design
Since 1999 a network of "associated sites" has
been contributing materials and critical input to the project.
This now includes National Society and Ministry of Education
contacts in some 15 countries. Pilot test sessions have also
enabled the project coordinators to adapt the material to
a range of diverse educational, social and political contexts.
Professor Kader Asmal, minister of education for South Africa,
views the EHL project as "a peg to deal with violence"
within the framework of the urgent need to "demilitarize"
South African youth. According to Professor Asmal, "The
recent history of educational development in South Africa
has been marked by extreme political violence... From the
time of the Soweto uprising of 1976 to the first free elections
in 1994, young people have been exposed to high levels of
violence that have distorted their socialization process and
largely explains the widespread disrespect for authority and
violence that has characterized them in the post-apartheid
era. One of the main educational challenges today is to ensure
the transformation of a mindset rooted in a lack of discipline
and antisocial behaviour, to one that is respectful of life
and the human dignity of all." It is in this context
that the EHL project is seen as a valuable contribution to
"the common values and understanding currently being
sought in the education system".
Contributing to rights education
The process has also been positively reviewed in Morocco
where human rights education is gradually being introduced
across the school system. Recent testing of EHL materials
demonstrated the relevance of humanitarian law as part of
the process of human rights education. As observed by the
deputy director of the curricula department of the Moroccan
Ministry of Education: "International humanitarian law
is of undeniable educational, social and methodological relevance.
Education in humanitarian law sensitizes young people to complex
issues relative to relations between individuals and groups.
If war can probably not be completely prevented, students
can be made aware of the possibility of interacting more positively
and humanely in situations of conflict. This is perhaps the
necessary condition to prevent and limit the devastation of
1 Mohamed Ben Maiza,
Department of Curricula, Ministry of Education, Rabat. Quoted
in "Le droit humanitaire exploré par les élèves"
in L'Humanitaire, 2 December 2000, ICRC, Tunis, pp. 27-28.
In Northern Ireland, schooling has a long tradition of parochialism
and segregation. A social, civic and political education project
is now shaping the current process of curricular review and
is being piloted within the larger framework of a delicate
peace process. Some of these pilot schools have tested EHL
materials in various subject areas such as politics, English,
history and geography, with teachers and pupils providing
positive feedback both on the content and on the methodology.
The introduction of international humanitarian law, the proposed
exploration of the humanitarian perspective and the global
perspective have been seen as positive contributions to citizenship
education for young people in a divided society.
Youth and volunteering
Beyond the rhetoric of "youth as the future", adolescents
should be viewed as potential victims, protagonists of violence,
or as an important volunteer base for humanitarian organizations
such as the Movement. One of the main learning goals of the
Exploring Humanitarian Law modules is to encourage active
involvement in community service or other forms of mobilization
to protect and promote humanitarian attitudes. Pilot testing
of the project in secondary school settings has demonstrated
that the modules offer an opportunity to counter declining
trends of volunteering by creating interest in humanitarian
issues both locally and internationally. As a teenager observed
during recent pilot tests: "I had never realized that
we can make a difference if we want to..." The introduction
of EHL modules in secondary education may well prove to be
important in reversing declining trends of volunteering in
the Movement, and for promoting protection and respect for
life and human dignity.
Sobhi Tawil was head of the Exploring Humanitarian Law project
at the ICRC from February 1999 to July 2001.
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