Exploration 3B: From the Perspective of Combatants


In Exploration 3A, students identified a number of violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) as well as the reasons for such violations, and then discussed how one violation can lead to others.

In Exploration 3B, they tackle dilemmas based on the actual experiences of combatants in situations typical of modern warfare. Combatants are faced with difficult decisions, in applying the rules of war when their own safety and the safety of their fellow combatants is at risk. Many such dilemmas arise when the distinction between civilians and combatants – or between civilian objects and military objectives – is unclear. This distinction has sometimes been blurred intentionally by combatants seeking safety or advantage.

This course is two 45-minute sessions.


  • To be able to recognize dilemmas that may arise in respecting IHL in combat situations
  • To understand the difficulties in respecting IHL when the difference between combatants and civilians is unclear

Key Ideas

  • Following the rules of IHL in situations of armed conflict sometimes creates dilemmas.
  • Dilemmas may result from the difficulty of distinguishing between combatants and civilians.
  • Sometimes people blur the distinction intentionally, and sometimes it is blurred when fighting takes place in residential areas.
  • If there is any doubt about the civilian status of a person or an object, that person or object shall considered to be civilian.


Choose two or more dilemmas (from “Dilemma scenarios”) to use in steps 1 and 2. Be sure to include at least one of the dilemmas marked *, which deal with difficulties in distinguishing civilians from combatants.

In the Methodology Guide, review teaching method 9 (Small groups) and the material on teaching about consequences in teaching method 4 (Using dilemmas).



Dilemmas that combatants may face | 30 minutes

  • Divide the class into small groups and assign each group a dilemma from “Dilemma scenarios.”
  • Each group can use copies of the “Dilemma worksheet” and of “What are the basic rules of international humanitarian law?” to note down their ideas as they work on the dilemma and to stimulate discussions.
  • As they work out what action to take in light of the dilemma presented, they should keep in mind the following points:

  • the various options that are available;
  • the possible consequences of each action;
  • what IHL requires;
  • the different people involved and their points of view.
  • In addition, encourage them to consider the following points:

  • how emotions and attitudes could influence consequences;
  • conditions that may affect the combatants’ choices (such as time pressures, the dangerousness of their surroundings and the degree of authority or influence that they have over the other people involved).
  • After about 15 minutes, ask the groups to choose which action to take. Ask them to write down their choice and their reasons for it. In making their choice, they should take into account the rules of IHL as well as any other pertinent considerations.


    Dilemma Decisions | 25 minutes

    Reconvene the class, and have one student report each group’s decision. In their reports, students should be asked to:

  • state the problem they faced in trying to respect IHL in the situation they were given;
  • indicate the action they decided to take;
  • give reasons for their choice.

  • 3

    The distinction between civilians and combatants | 30 minutes

    Ask students to reflect on the following rule:

    When planning or carrying out an attack, distinction must be made between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives.

    – Paraphrased from Article 48, Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions

    Help students understand the rule by asking them to give examples of:

  • People who would be considered to be civilians in armed conflict;
  • Things that would be considered to be civilian objects and things that would be considered to be military objectives.
  • Then discuss the following rule:

  • When there is any doubt about a person’s status, he or she shall be considered to be a civilian. Similarly, if there is any doubt about whether a civilian object is in fact being used in support of military action, it shall be considered to be a civilian object.
  • – Paraphrased from Articles 50 and 52, Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions

    Use examples like the following to discuss how borderline cases contribute to dilemmas that soldiers face in respecting IHL:

  • A woman who provides food and shelter to soldiers;
  • A radio station that broadcasts war propaganda;
  • A university where some students are trained for military service.
  • Possible questions:

  • What are the consequences of not knowing who is a civilian or what is a civilian object? What consequences could such ignorance or doubt have?
  • Explain to students that if a civilian is involved in acts that directly harm the enemy by weakening its military strength, that person looses his or her protection against attack, although only for the duration of the act in question. Make sure that students understand that even under such circumstances, civilians do not qualify as combatants.


    Closing | 5 minutes


  • How can combatants affect how civilians from their side are treated during armed conflict?