Exploration 1A: What Can Bystanders Do?


Exploration 1A focuses on stories about ordinary people who, on their own, in times of war or in other violent situations, acted to protect the life or the human dignity of people whom they may not know – even despite personal risk or loss.

These stories are drawn from real life and have no pattern in common. Each story has its particular characteristics: the time and the place, the type of violence (armed conflict, racial violence, youth gangs), the nationality of the protector, and so on.

The stories are accompanied by notes drawing attention to their special points. Useful questions, pertinent to all the stories, are presented in step 3 “Explore several stories.”

Select several stories for your group. Plan to devote at least two sessions for exploring the stories. This will give you time to employ a number of pedagogical approaches (role-playing, small-group discussion, analysis and presentation) to illustrate how the courage to act develops. And that, in turn, will enable your students to receive the full impact of the experiences and actions of a variety of by-standers.

This course is two 45-minute sessions.


  • To understand the concept of a humanitarian act
  • To understand how social pressure has an influence on what is done in those situations where someone’s life or human dignity is at risk
  • To be able to identify humanitarian acts in the news and in everyday life

Key Ideas

  • Ordinary people can, in times of violence, act to protect the life or human dignity of people they may not know or whom they would not ordinarily be inclined to help or protect
  • Bystanders often act despite possible personal risk or loss
  • Ordinary people everywhere have confronted inhumane behaviour to protect others who are at risk


Choose the stories and the sequence in which they will be used.

In the Methodology Guide, review teaching methods 5 (Role-playing), 6 (Using stories, photos and videos) and 9 (Small groups), and workshop 2 (“Role-playing: What can bystanders do?”).

If possible, view the relevant chapter of the teacher video (Organizing students’ responses: Looking at humanitarian acts) and the relevant chapter of the training film for teachers (Module 1)




(5 minutes)

To introduce the subject, have students discuss the following question:

  • What does it take to do something dangerous or unpopular to help someone whose life or human dignity is at risk?

  • 2

    Define "Bystander"(10 minutes)

    Introduce the term "bystander." Exploring Humanitarian Law (EHL) defines a ‘bystander’ like this: “someone aware of an incident, without being involved, where the life or human dignity of others is in danger.” A bystander may decide to intervene.


    Explore Several Stories

    (60 minutes, additional time may be needed, depending on the stories chosen and the pedagogical approaches used)

    Possible Approaches:

  • Students are divided into small groups. Each group reads and discusses a different story, then tells the others about it.
  • Students dramatize a story; each person in the story is assigned to several different students, so that they might examine his or her motivation.
  • Read a story aloud to the group, and stop at marked ‘decision points’ (↔) in the narrative so that the group can discuss what they think the people involved should do next.
  • [Suggestions for sequencing story activities can be seen in Exploration 1A: Stories]

    Questions for reporting and discussing stories:

  • When and where did the events in the story take place?
  • How was someone’s life or human dignity at risk in this situation?
  • What obstacles did rescuers face? What were they risking?
  • Who were the bystanders and what choices did they make? Why?
  • What pressures and risks were involved?
  • What were the immediate results of the bystanders’ actions? And later?

  • 4

    Close – after the final session on stories

    Remind students that such acts take place throughout the world, even though they are not always reported.

    Ask students:

    To summarize the situations in the real-life stories that they have explored

    To review the obstacles the bystanders had to overcome, the risks they took, and the impact they had in attempting to protect others

    Possible question:

    Do you have any examples from school, your neighbourhood or your family, in which a bystander did something to protect someone’s life or human dignity?

    Read the following statements by the scholar Ervin Staub about the influence of bystanders on the behaviour of others. Ask students to give instances from the stories that illustrate the meaning of each statement.

    Bystanders can exert powerful influence. They can define the meaning of events and move others towards empathy or indifference.

    Psychological research shows that a single deviation from group behaviour can greatly diminish conformity.

    In emergencies, the likelihood of helping greatly increases when one bystander says the situation is serious or tells others to take action.

    Even the behaviour of governments can be strongly affected by bystanders, individuals, groups or other governments.

    - Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil