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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 war."1

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
Sobhi Tawil was head of the Exploring Humanitarian Law project at the ICRC from February 1999 to July 2001.

 


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