the wars in the former Yugoslavia started in 1991, they were
just pre-school children, and mere toddlers in some cases.
When the conflict ended in 1999, they were teenagers. In the
interval, they had experienced violence and devastation and,
in the most tragic cases, the injury or death of family members.
They all experienced the frightening wail of air-raid sirens,
a mad scramble for the shelters and the anguish in their parents’
in all wars, propaganda relentlessly promoted a hatred against
other nations and a sense that they were being wronged. As
in all wars, basic social values disintegrated,
dialogue and tolerance giving way to uncritical identification
with their own ethnic group and scorn for all theothers. They
grew up in a country subject to sanctions and total isolation.
Today these 16- and 17-year-old students are exploring the
content and spirit of international humanitarian law (IHL).
Initially, they were sceptical about the value of learning
IHL. “Why should we learn about and discuss something
that is always violated anyway, and when only a few perpetrators
are punished?” asked one participant. Yet these young
adults realize that IHL is more than an academic subject:
for them it is about the harsh reality of how to protect yourself
and your family when war breaks out in your backyard.
The exploration of humanitarian law is a gradual process:
it encourages young people to consider what they would do
in scenarios that echo their everyday dilemmas. For example,
one recurring scenario in a society racked by emotional trauma
is: “I have a friend who is a drug addict — should
I approach his parents and warn them about it?” The
discussion on this question opens up a heated debate on the
consequences of taking or not taking action. Any decision
implies different impacts on different actors. The question,“Will
my action do more harm than good to the one I want to help?”,
leads them toconsider the perspectives of others. The arguments
of “but his parents will punish him and make the problem
worse” and “no, they will take him to an expert
who can really help him” echo in the corridors long
after the class is over.
One step further, the young participants are plunged into
the world of violence, discrimination and injustice. The story
of a white prison guard bullying a black detainee in South
Africa during apartheid provokes the students’ indignation:
“All people are equal and should be treated with respect.”
But it is easy to protest against something that took place
far away and long ago. Will they link it to something close
to their own experience? In every class there are a couple
of young people who do. “Why are we so hypocritical
in defending the equality of Africans when we are treating
the Roma in our midst with huge prejudice and scorn.”
This makes the other listeners pause. Stories of skinheads
stoning Roma children, young Roma being kicked out of communal
swimming pools or not being allowed into supermarkets emerge.
Next, the subject turns to situations that arise in war.
The students are asked to write the rules of IHL and list
those responsible for their observance. Invariably, they come
up with the condensed version of the Geneva Conventions without
having ever seen them. The need to spare women, children and
civilians, and to take care of the wounded, sick and the captured
is universal. But then, what if a prisoner under our control
has information that can save or destroy the lives of my friends
and neighbours? What if, on the other hand, he is my brother?
The complexities of real-life situations, with all the social
and psychological implications, are not new to these youngsters
but this is the first time they can discuss them freely and
see their implications. They take enormous pride when they
are presented with the “War Code of the Principality
of Serbia” of 1877, which says things like: “Pillage
and looting of enemy property is strictly prohibited because
it brings shame on the army and turns soldiers into plunderers”,
“Poisoning of wells is only done by savages”,
“Enemy soldiers are not barbarous murderers, they are
conscripts like yourselves, called up to fight for their country;
therefore, when captured they must be treated with respect
The most interesting thing about EHL is to see how these
young people who have been affected and indoctrinated by war
come to reconsider their initial opinions. This is most noticeable
in their attitude towards international tribunals as a mechanism
for ensuring justice. Most of the population, including the
young, in Serbia believe the International Criminal Tribunal
for the Former Yugoslavia to be partial and unfair. One of
the exercises in the programme, however, puts the advocates
of national war crimes courts in the position of seeking arguments
in favour of international tribunals. “When I saw what
justice was served to those who carried out the massacre in
My Lai, I understood that it is very difficult for the national
judiciary to be objective,” said one student. “Emotionally
and patriotically, I still believe that we should deal with
our own war crimes ourselves. But rationally, after being
placed in the situation of thinking about it all very carefully,
I am inclined to think that the international justice system
can handle it better,” stated another participant.
“It is precisely this suspension of initial belief
that is of utmost importance to the reconciliation processes
and the creation of a civil society in Serbia,” says
Biljana Popovic, one of the EHL trainers of the Group MOST.
“Contrary to popular opinion, not everything is permitted
in either love or war, and young people need to realize that
and recognize the line that must not be crossed.”
The Centre for Evaluation in Education and the Institute
of Psychology of the Faculty of Philosophy of the University
of Belgrade carried out an external evaluation of the impact
of EHL on the pilot group of 16 secondary schools in Belgrade
and the police cadet school in 2003 and 2004. Testing ten
experimental and ten control groups before and after the programme
showed an increase in social responsibility across the sample,
and in particular among boys, children of lower academic accomplishment
and of lower parental education level.
At the same time, implementing teachers proudly reported
that the EHL students launched a number of humanitarian activities,
mobilizing their entire school.
Echoing the words of a well-known Montenegrin writer, a student
says: “True humanity lies not so much in protecting
myself and my own from others, as in protecting others from
myself. The EHL experience has been an important step in that
What is EHL?
Exploring Humanitarian Law (EHL) is an international education
programme for young people between 13 and 18 years of age.
The objective of the programme is to introduce adolescents
to the basic rules and principles of international humanitarian
law, the body of rules that aims to protect life and human
dignity during armed conflict and to reduce and prevent the
suffering and destruction that result from war.
Developed by the ICRC, in close association with the Educational
Development Center, Inc. and with the active participation
of 20 countries from all parts of the world, EHL offers 30
academic hours of educational activities. Building on the
experiences of a wide variety of countries, the programme
is transnational in scope, cutting across political, social,
religious and cultural contexts, and can easily be adapted
to diverse educational settings.
Find more about the EHL resource pack on www.icrc.org