Exploration 1C: A Bystander’s Dilemma


In Explorations 1A and 1B students explored actual humanitarian acts in terms of the obstacles and risks that bystanders faced before they acted, and the impact or consequences, immediate and long-term, of what they ultimately did.

Exploration 1C introduces the dilemma pedagogy of Exploring Humanitarian Law (EHL) and uses it to further explore humanitarian acts. Students assume the role of bystanders and consider whether to perform a humanitarian act; they are required also to take into account the viewpoints of everyone involved and to thoroughly examine goals and possible consequences.

Most humanitarian acts create dilemmas. But dilemma pedagogy is not emphasized at the beginning of the module because it is essential that students grasp the nature of humanitarian acts before analysing them. Many humanitarian acts are, in fact, done on impulse.

This course is one 45-minute session.


  • To recognize the complexity of a bystander’s situation when he or she is witnessing a threat to life or human dignity to learn how to analyse a dilemma

Key Ideas

  • In many humanitarian acts, people face a dilemma of choosing whether or not to protect someone’s life or human dignity when doing so may involve personal risk or cost to themselves or to those they are trying to protect.
  • Either choice can have complex and long-term consequences for all involved.


In the Methodology Guide, review teaching methods 4 (Using dilemmas) and 9 (Small groups) and workshop 3 (“Working with dilemmas: A bystander’s dilemma”)



Introduce the concept of a dilemma

(10 minutes)

Use familiar sayings to illustrate the concept of a dilemma.

[For example, "I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't" or "Between a rock and a hard place;" add something from your students' local culture.]

Encourage students to suggest what a dilemma is. Ask them to give examples, and explain why certain examples are dilemmas.

Identify the main features of a dilemma:

  • A situation that requires making a choice among alternative actions (including choosing to do nothing)
  • All options have advantages and disadvantages
  • Point out that in a dilemma, even “making the best of a bad situation” may seem impossible because:

  • Every option seems likely to cause problems
  • The consequences of all available options are uncertain
  • Use one of the stories in the module or a dilemma contributed by the students themselves. Have students propose several actions in response to the dilemma. Then, for each action, use these questions:

  • What is the desired consequence of your proposed action?
  • Might there be other consequences? (Explore the chains of consequences that might result.)
  • What are the unknown or unpredictable elements in the situation?
  • Who else is involved? How will they be affected by your action? How will they view your action? How will the views of others affect the outcome?

  • 2

    Explore the complexity of Wendy’s humanitarian dilemma

    (30 minutes)

    Present Wendy’s dilemma in “He was having some fun.”

    Have students imagine themselves in Wendy’s place as she waits outside the prison.

    Have them write down their thoughts on the following subjects:

  • What they might consider doing if they were Wendy
  • What the consequences of their action might be
  • After allowing time for individual writing, ask students to discuss the dilemma Wendy faces, her role as a bystander and what she might do.

    Start by focusing on the prisoner’s situation, as it seems to Wendy.

    Possible question:

  • What do Wendy and the guard each seem to think about the prisoner’s human dignity?
  • Then use the “Dilemma worksheet” to explore ideas for resolving Wendy’s dilemma.

    For each option that students propose, ask them to suggest the possible consequences for:

  • The prisoner
  • Wendy’s hope for seeing her imprisoned friend
  • The guard’s current and future behaviour
  • Wendy’s imprisoned friend
  • Possible questions:

  • What positive consequences would this action have in humanitarian terms?
  • Could choosing this option make things worse? How? And for whom?
  • You might mark a checkmark next to consequences that would have a positive effect in humanitarian terms and an x next to those that might have a harmful effect.

    After the discussion, ask students to take a few minutes more to decide what they now think they would do if they were Wendy. Have them explain their decision in writing, together with their reasons for it.

    Then invite them to share their decisions and their reasons.

    Note: If it is appropriate, suggest to your students that they think of Wendy and the guards as belonging to their own group (national, ethnic, religious, racial, cultural, etc.) and the prisoners as members of a different group – one that is politically, economically and militarily controlled by the students’ group.


    Close – Internal and external forces

    (5 minutes)

    Conclude by having students make four lists:

    Emotions & Perceptions

  • That influence Wendy’s decisions
  • That influence the guard’s behaviour
  • Conditions

    (time limits, differences in power, location)

  • That influence Wendy’s decisions
  • That influence the guard’s behaviour
  • By talking about these aspects of the dilemma, students will come to see how personal points of view and external circumstances affect a person’s efforts to meet the needs of others.