Exploration 2A: Limiting the Devastation of War


Module 1 examined humanitarian acts that were spontaneously performed by ordinary people to protect the lives and human dignity of others. Module 2 shifts the focus to rules of behaviour that are specifically designed to protect the lives and human dignity of people affected by armed conflict.

Exploration 2A begins by having students consider photos of one specific situation: soldiers taken prisoner. Students get glimpses of the different situations in which those at risk and those in power find themselves.

A photo collage then introduces them to a variety of other war-related situations. Students explore various experiences arising from armed conflict to suggest rules needed to limit unnecessary suffering and to protect life and human dignity.

This exploration introduces the basic rules of international humanitarian law (IHL). Students examine the reasons for these rules and compare them with rules that they suggest. The exploration also describes the relationship between IHL and human rights law and how human rights law complements IHL in armed conflicts.

This course is two 45-minute sessions.


  • To understand some of the reasons why rules are needed in armed conflict to understand how IHL and human rights law complement each other
  • To learn and understand some of the basic rules of IHL

Key Ideas

  • IHL aims to protect the lives and human dignity of people affected by armed conflict and to limit the suffering caused by war. It is a set of international rules that restricts the means and methods of warfare and protects those who are not or are no longer fighting.
  • Human rights law also aims to protect life and human dignity. While IHL is specifically designed for armed conflicts, it does not replace human rights law, which applies at all times; the two bodies of law are complementary.


In the Methodology Guide, review teaching method 6 (Using stories, photos and videos) and workshops 4 (“Using photos to explore human dignity”) and 5 (“Building on students’ ideas: The basics of international humanitarian law”).

If possible, view the relevant chapters of the teacher video (Using photos to explore human dignity and Students’ views: What rules are needed for armed conflict?) and the relevant chapter of the training film for teachers (Module 2).




(5 minutes)

Briefly review Module 1 with students.

Possible questions:

  • What do you recall about the characteristics of humanitarian acts?
  • What were some of the obstacles to carrying out humanitarian acts?
  • What additional obstacles might make it difficult to carry out humanitarian acts during armed conflict?
  • [For example: desire for revenge, lack of information, lack of supplies, fear, intense hatred]

    Tell students that in this exploration they will consider the need for rules in armed conflict and look at examples of such rules.


    The experience of captives and captor

    (20 minutes)

    Present the photo “Blindfolded captive.” Ask students to imagine themselves in the shoes of the captive or his guards. Have them write down their thoughts.

    Possible question:

  • What might the captive be thinking? The guards?
  • Have each student discuss his or her thoughts with a partner.

    Suggest these points, one at a time:

  • Imagine that the captive is your brother. How would you want him to be treated? Why?
  • Imagine that the captive killed your friend in battle. How would you want him to be treated? Why?
  • Note: In the EHL programme, the terms ‘captured person,’ ‘captive,’ ‘detainee’ and ‘prisoner’ are used interchangeably.

    Repeat the process, using the photo “Prisoners’ march.”

    Then reconvene the class and discuss the following questions:

  • How should a man or woman taken prisoner during armed conflict be treated?
  • Suppose prisoners have important information. Should that affect their treatment?
  • In what way is a prisoner’s human dignity at risk? A guard’s?

  • 3

    What rules should there be to protect prisoners in armed conflict?

    (15 minutes)

    Ask students to write down rules that they think are needed to protect prisoners in armed conflict and to give their reasons for each rule. Then make a list of their suggestions.


    What other rules are needed in armed conflict?

    (10 minutes)

    Present “Photo collage 2A.” Have students examine the photos and suggest other rules that might be needed. Make a list of these proposed rules as well.

    Then, discuss the full list of students’ suggestions. Identify those rules with which the group either agrees or disagrees, and explore the reasons for students’ views.

    Possible questions:

  • How would each of your rules change the experience of war?
  • What might be the difficulties in implementing them?
  • Which of your rules apply to combatants who can no longer fight
  • (e.g. captured, wounded, sick or shipwrecked combatants)?

  • 5

    Examine the basic rules of IHL

    (15 minutes)

    Present “What are the basic rules of international humanitarian law?”

    Use the following question to guide the discussion:

  • Which of these rules are similar to the ones that you suggested?
  • Ask students to choose some rules and discuss what would happen without them.


    IHL and human rights law

    (15 minutes)

    Point out that there is another body of law that seeks to protect life and human dignity: human rights law.

    Ask students to brainstorm about some human rights to which everyone should be entitled, in all circumstances. Then, present “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” and have students compare their list with the rights it identifies.

    Challenge students to find a couple of examples of human rights that match protections found in “What are the basic rules of international humanitarian law?”.

    Point out that such matches exist because these two sets of rules provide complementary protections. Explain that human rights law applies at all times, whereas IHL applies only in armed conflict. Stress that during armed conflict, therefore, human rights law and IHL both apply and in a complementary manner.

    Ask students whether they think any of the rights listed in “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” may ever be set aside.

    Possible questions:

    Can you think of any circumstances in which any of these rights could be limited or suspended? Why? Which rights?

  • Which of these human rights do you think may never be limited or suspended?
  • Explain that in contrast to certain human rights, the rules of IHL may never be restricted. This is because the rules of IHL were developed deliberately as minimal rules so that they could realistically be applied even under the extreme conditions of armed conflict.


    Make the basic rules of IHL memorable

    (10 minutes)

    Have students in small groups develop short phrases or slogans to summarize each of the basic rules of IHL and make the rules memorable.

    [For example, "Spare surrendering soldiers," "Care for the sick and wounded," "Respect the emblem."]