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“Protecting others from myself”

Young people in Serbia and in Montenegro show a very strong interest in the Exploring Humanitarian Law (EHL) programme that helps them embrace principles of humanity in their daily lives.

When 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’ eyes. As
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.



Emotional trauma

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 and humanity”

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 direction.”


Gordana Milenkovic
Gordana Milenkovic is ICRC information officer in Belgrade.


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


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