In a classroom in Lebanon last September, Thalia Arawy, a high school teacher, and a group of students began discussing the terrorist attack on the United States. Students fell into two camps as they debated the ethical questions raised by the attack. What was striking to Arawy was that all of the students condemning the attack had studied a new curriculum called Exploring Humanitarian Law (EHL).
In a note to EDC’s Marilyn Felt, lead author of the curriculum, Arawy reflected on how the curriculum had influenced the day’s discussion:
“Today we are back to school and I had my students [from] last year with three new students who joined the course. We started off discussing the WTC [World Trade Center]. What I found promising and I think is a victory of your work is that all students who took the EHL course with me last year condemned the act as being inhumane since it has caused harm to civilians, while the three newcomers felt otherwise… . My students argued with strong convictions, rationally and logically. Your EHL is bearing fruits in the minds of people who have lived in the midst of wars for quite some time. If it managed to do that in the minds of these children, I am quite optimistic!”
Funded by the International Committee of the Red Cross and developed by Felt with Susan Christie Woodward, Barbara Powell, and Marjorie Jones of EDC, EHL is a rich investigation of International Humanitarian Law for secondary school students. It is currently in use in more than 55 countries worldwide, including those experiencing active conflicts, such as Israel, the Palestinian National Authority, Northern Ireland, and the former Yugoslavia. Felt says EHL relies on the universal pedagogy of storytelling—actual accounts of ordinary people and how they responded to difficult, life-altering choices. Designed to be translated into local languages, the EHL curriculum is flexible enough that teachers can also weave in stories from their own national and cultural traditions.
International Humanitarian Law defines the rules of “what’s fair” during armed conflicts. It outlaws attacks on civilians, injured and captured combatants, and medical personnel and facilities. It forbids indiscriminate attacks, and affirms that all civilians, wounded combatants, and prisoners must be protected and treated humanely. The EHL curriculum brings these principles alive for students by making them specific. It tells the true stories of Vanna, who lost a leg from stepping on a landmine when she was feeding her chickens, and of the child soldier Samuel, who at age 12 is praised by his officers as “nimble and brave.” It introduces students to U.S. soldiers at the massacre of My Lai, Vietnam—from those who obeyed the order to kill civilians and are still traumatized by their actions, to others who take pride in having refused the order on pain of court martial.
In EHL, students learn that life is fraught with hard choices and that, in instances like My Lai, “injustice can be its own punishment,” says Felt. EHL is designed, she says, to “teach International Humanitarian Law to young people before they become soldiers on the battlefield, or prisoners of war, or government officials making policy, or civilians witnessing troops attacking innocent neighbors.”
While the material in EHL can be both emotionally difficult and intellectually challenging, most students who participated in pilot tests of the curriculum in Jamaica, Thailand, Morocco, and South Africa also found it inspiring. “I have learned to see the human side in everyone, including my enemy,” a Moroccan student reported. And a student in Jamaica saw herself anew: “I am not too small to help somebody in trouble.”
The course employs a variety of tools and strategies to help students view war through the eyes of victims, witnesses, and combatants. Photographs, video clips, and first-person accounts show students both the horrors of war and the possibilities for relieving suffering. Through brainstorming, large- and small-group discussions, reflective writing, class debates, and role plays, students explore the plight of war refugees, landmine victims, and soldiers and officers caught in often agonizing dilemmas. “We had to think about how we would solve the problem and through this we developed new ideas. It’s as if we were in the place of the people in the story,” wrote one Thai student.
The opportunities to speak out in class, to state their opinions, to express themselves through role plays, reflective writing, and drawings, and to work in groups help students realize their own potential to act, notes Barbara Powell, who evaluated the pilot tests of the curriculum. In South Africa, for instance, vigorous class discussions led students to realize the importance of talking things out, rather than resorting to violence. “In this programme, every one of the participants had a chance to speak their mind. Issues are hard to solve if you don’t learn to listen to other people’s opinions,” one student wrote. Such listening skills, adds Powell, “are critically important in countries where armed conflicts are taking place.”
The curriculum also explores notions of courage and social pressure. In what ways does the courage of a bystander who assists a victim mirror a soldier’s courage? How does the social pressure that permits a soldier to participate in a massacre parallel pressures in the civilian world to harm or exclude strangers or those who are “different”? Developer Susan Christie Woodward especially values how the materials encourage students to find guidance in their own lives and traditions by drawing on cultures and examples from around the world, such as the 13th century Muslim Sufi poet Rumi, who told his followers, “Be a lamp, a lifeboat, or a ladder.”
The complexity of the issues the course raises is made concrete by labeling a corner of the classroom “No Easy Answers,” and keeping a list of the hard questions that students raise. The corner lets students see how some of the questions they posed at the beginning of the course might be answered as they gain information and understanding. “Students often want to know why war isn’t simply outlawed,” says Felt, “but they come to see that war is going to continue to happen and that our task is to contain it, to place limits around it.” The “No Easy Answers” corner also reminds students that questions beget other questions, and that some of these questions are, for the moment, unanswerable. “What was difficult to understand,” wrote one South African student, “was why there are any child soldiers.”
Like International Humanitarian Law itself, EHL doesn’t rely on particular theologies or ideologies, but is based instead on the universal impulse to behave decently and with kindness toward the helpless. The curriculum is designed, its developers write, “to work with the head and the heart.” Students come away from the course having exercised both. They grapple with the same issues and questions that perplex world leaders, and learn how to listen respectfully and take another’s point of view; they are better able to see the humanity in others, even in their enemies. Perhaps most importantly, they have explored their own capacity to do the right thing, even in a world that doesn’t always seem to value that capacity.
Originally published on August 31, 2002