Exploration 4A: Rationales and Options for Dealing with IHL Violations


Module 3 took up the subject of violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), and students discovered why such violations occur. They learned about the dilemmas that may arise in applying the law and the difficulties related to responsibilities, using a case study.

Module 4 is designed to broaden students’ understanding of the ways in which IHL is implemented. It presents a number of ways of dealing with IHL violations, such as bringing perpetrators to trial, uncovering the truth, reconciliation and forms of reparation.

Exploration 4A first asks students to consider some reasons for dealing with violations of IHL. It then invites them to explore ways of doing this and touches upon the responsibilities of the different actors involved.

This course is two 45-minute sessions.


  • To understand how dealing – or not dealing – with IHL violations can affect the well-being of a society after armed conflict
  • To recognize that there are a number of ways of dealing with IHL violations

Key Ideas

  • People who commit grave breaches of IHL must be tried and punished.
  • The responsibility for enforcing IHL lies primarily with governments, but others can play a significant role as well.
  • Bringing perpetrators to trial is not the only way to deal with violations of IHL.


Choose the question you will use for the writing assignment in step 1.

In the Methodology Guide, review teaching methods 1 (Discussion), 7, (Writing and reflecting), 9 (Small groups) and 10 (Gathering stories and news). If possible, view the relevant chapter of the training film for teachers (Module 4).



What should be done when the law has been broken? | 25 minutes

Begin a class discussion based on situations familiar to students.

[For example: breaking 'house rules' or 'rules of friendship'; flouting certain generally accepted moral principles.]

Possible questions:

  • If you break a rule or misbehave, what should you do? Why?
  • What should happen to you? Why?
  • Continue the discussion with examples of breaking the law.

    Possible question:

  • What happens to people accused of committing a crime, such as stealing or murder?
  • Use recent examples from local news. For every example, ask students to offer possible reasons for it.

    Expand the discussion to situations of armed conflict.

    Possible questions:

  • What happens to people accused of violating IHL?
  • What are the similarities and differences between everyday crimes and breaking the rules of war?
  • Select one of the two questions in the table below. Ask students to recall serious violations of IHL that they know of before choosing one of the answers listed. Tell them to write down the reasons for their choice.

    Question 1:

    Should people who break the rules of war be punished?

  • Yes
  • No
  • I don’t know
  • Question 2:

    When the war is over, should people who have broken the rules of war:

  • Be put on trial?
  • Be exposed to the public but not put on trial?
  • Be forgiven?
  • Be granted amnesty be forgotten about because the war is over?
  • Discuss the question and the views expressed by students. Have them compare their thoughts with the views expressed in the graph “Opinions on what to do with people breaking the rules of war.”

    Possible question:

  • How might someone’s response be affected by the experience of living through armed conflict?

  • 2

    Consequences of Forgetting or Addressing Violations of IHL | 20 minutes

    Present “To forget or not to forget? Views on dealing with violations of IHL,” and assign one of the four sets of quotations to pairs of students or to small groups.

    Reconvene the class, and have students identify the reasons given in their set of quotations for action and for inaction.

    Discuss these reasons.

    Possible questions:

    What are some of the consequences of either choice for:

  • The victims?
  • The perpetrators?
  • The society as a whole in the aftermath of armed conflict?
  • How do you react when you feel that somebody has harmed you?


    Trying and Punishing War Crimes | (25 minutes)

    Discuss the following IHL rule All States must establish laws to try and to punish those who commit grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Paraphrase from Article 49/50/128/146 common to the four Geneva Conventions

    Possible question:

  • What would you consider to be a grave breach of IHL?
  • Ask students to give examples from history and current events.

    Then use “What is a war crime?” to give them a sense of the kinds of violations that constitute war crimes.

    Possible question:

  • Why do you think grave breaches of IHL qualify as war crimes?
  • List students’ responses to this second question where all can see.

    Using the worksheet “Responsibilities for implementing IHL,” have students write down their ideas about what action can eb taken after an armed conflict by:

  • Commanders of armed forces or groups
  • The government
  • The courts
  • Then discuss their ideas.

    Stress the importance of the responsibility of each of the above parties in bringing alleged perpetrators to court.

  • Commanders of armed forces or groups are responsible for monitoring the application of IHL and must stop violations; they must report all violations of the law and take disciplinary measures. They are also responsible for bringing to court martial persons under their authority who commit grave breaches.
  • The government is responsible for enacting national laws prohibiting and punishing grave breaches. It is ultimately responsible for searching for and prosecuting persons accused of committing grave breaches. It must also ensure that its military commanders take action against those under their authority who commit grave breaches.
  • The courts are responsible for trying and punishing persons who have committed grave braches.

  • 4

    What else can be done? | 15 minutes

    Point out that bringing people to trial is not the only way to deal with IHL violations.

    Use the following statement to inspire students to generate ideas about what else could be done after the end of a period of violence to try to bring closure for the victims and to facilitate the society’s return to peace.

    In the six years prior to 1982 nearly 30,000 people ‘disappeared’ in what is often referred to as Argentina’s ‘Dirty War.’ On orders from their superios, naval officers dumped ‘the disappeared’ – still alive after being tortured – from airplanes into the South Atlantic.

    Make a list of their suggestions.

    [For example: attempts to bring about a reconciliation between the perpetrators and victims' relatives, efforts to find the remains of the 'disappeared' and to return them to their families, public apologies, financial compensation to relatives for their loss, establishing memorials]

    Review and discuss their suggestions.

    Possible questions:

  • Who do you think could initiate these efforts? [For example: the international community, the government, non-governmental organizations, relatives of the victims, concerned citizens]
  • Who do you think could carry them out? [For example: the international community, the government, the navy, the perpetrators, those who gave the orders]
  • What is the aim of these measures if not to punish the perpetrators? [For example: to bring relief to the relatives of the victims, to reconcile people, to heal wounds, to contribute to social reconstruction, to prevent future abuses, to move from violence to peace]

  • 5

    Closing | 5 minutes

    Discuss the following question:

  • After an armed conflict, what could ordinary citizens do to help bring justice and heal the wounds of war? Content