Exploration 1B: Looking at Humanitarian Acts


In Exploration 1A, students read, enacted, and analysed a number of stories about bystanders. Exploration 1B helps students to define what the concept of a humanitarian act – the behaviour at the heart of all the stories – is.

Exploring Humanitarian Law (EHL) defines a ‘humanitarian act’ like this: “an act performed by a person to protect life or the human dignity of someone whom he or she may not know or would not ordinarily be inclined to help or protect. A humanitarian act is likely to involve personal risk or loss.”

After defining a humanitarian act, and having been introduced to the subject of possible risks and obstacles, students will examine some real examples of humanitarian acts performed during armed conflict. Then, they will discuss the kinds of risks and obstacles encountered by those who performed the humanitarian acts.

This course is one 45-minute session.


  • 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

  • A humanitarian act is done to protect someone whose life or human dignity is in danger, especially someone whom one would not ordinarily be inclined to help or protect. Such acts are likely to involve personal risk or loss.
  • Performing a humanitarian act may be difficult in some social contexts, particularly when it involves a person who is considered to be part of an ‘enemy’ group.


Prepare the two displays used in this activity:

1. characteristics of a humanitarian act; and 2. social pressure.

In the Methodology Guide, review teaching method 10 (Gathering stories and news) and workshop 2 ("Role-playing: What can bystanders do?").

If possible, view the relevant section of the teacher video (Organizing students' responses: Looking at humanitarian acts).



The Concept of a Humanitarian Act

(15 minutes)

Display the three characteristics of humanitarian acts and have students give examples for each from the stories in Exploration 1A.

Characteristics of a humanitarian act

  • Protects life or human dignity
  • Usually done for someone whom you may not know or would not ordinarily be inclined to help or protect
  • Likely to involve personal risk or loss
  • Humanitarian acts often have to be carried out against social pressure. Use the following ‘social pressure line’ to show how strongly social pressures favour or oppose performing a humanitarian act.

    Social Pressure Line

    Opposed to protecting <---------------------------------> In favor of protecting

    Using the stories studied in Exploration 1A or an event familiar to your students, ask the following questions:

  • Where on the line would you put this act, and why?
  • How was stepping forward to protect someone’s life or human dignity influenced by the social context?
  • [For example, social pressure to "mind your own business" or social pressure to join in the persecution makes it harder for someone to rescue a victim]

    Possible questions:

  • Why were other bystanders not already helping?
  • How did one bystander’s actions change other people’s willingness to help?
  • Why were bystanders in a story NOT expected to help? What social pressures did they defy in order to help?
  • Can you give an example from history where culture, class or religion played a part in whether people protected victims?
  • Can you think of examples of both the good and the bad effects of social pressure?
  • Encourage students to refer to the stories they have analysed or to use other examples that they might know.

    Note:If necessary, first discuss one excerpt with the class to show how the circumstances of war exert pressures that work against the performance of humanitarian acts.


    Consider Humanitarian Acts in Recent Armed Conflicts

    (15 minutes)

    Present “Voices from war – 1″. Assign students an excerpt, and have them write a description of the humanitarian act.

    Then have them briefly describe the incident, indicating:

  • What happened
  • Where they would put the act on the ‘social pressure line’ and why
  • Discuss their work.

    Possible question:

  • Does it make a difference when the person at risk is someone we do not know or someone we regard as an enemy?

  • 3

    Assess the Difficulties in Deciding to Act

    (10 minutes)

    Discuss the third characteristic of a humanitarian act – “likely to involve personal risk or loss.”

    Possible question:

  • What kinds of risks might there be?
  • [For example, emotional, social, psychological, physical]

    Have students choose one of the humanitarian acts and list the difficulties or risks involved.

    Help them to see that individual differences in personalities, as well as in personal circumstances, influence people’s humanitarian responses.



    (5 minutes)

    Conclude by reviewing the characteristics of a humanitarian act. Illustrate each characteristic, if possible, with an example given by the students.