Innovative Teaching Spotlight: Using Active Learning to Teach International Humanitarian Law

Valpo_atchison1Sometimes innovative teaching means hiring a sniper and being left behind on the battlefield. But it’s all worth it for Valparaiso University Assistant Professor Amy Atchison who pondered how best to teach International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and its disheartening history of violations to her students.  Thinking that active learning might work, Atchison reached out to the Red Cross, which serves as the repository for IHL. They responded with the Raid Cross activities, which allowed Atchison to give the students a context for IHL violations and ease the intensity of the material with inventive exercises.

Valpo_War1For many of the activities, Atchison divided the 15-student class into opposing factions in a simulated war. In one exercise, she taped pictures of targets – some military, others civilian or cultural – to bottles and cans. Students were given ammunition (balls, Nerf guns) and had to decide which targets to pursue. Students knew IHL prohibited them from attacking civil and cultural targets, but they hit them anyway, either because they were close to a military target or out of retaliation for an opponent’s move. Each team had either a soccer ball or a football as a nuclear weapon, and both sides used them.

Valpo_War2In another exercise students had to triage wounded from a battlefield. They knew that IHL dictated the most critical be moved first, even if that meant moving an enemy soldier before evacuating one’s own soldier. Atchison participated in this exercise as the most wounded soldier on the battlefield. But she was an enemy soldier, and she was the last to be put on a stretcher.

The humanitarian aid activity required additional space and outside help as teams of five were required to bypass a sniper and outwit a corrupt border guard in order to retrieve humanitarian aid for their village. In an on-campus ballroom, Atchison drew upon a former army ranger turned faculty member as a consultant for the obstacle course. Students from outside of class played the roles of sniper and guard, and the theatre department created a platform for the sniper. Students retrieving aid were “caught” if the sniper yelled the color pinned to their shirts. The teams did well, said Atchison. They were clever and competitive, often using team members to distract the guard and the sniper while the others retrieved the aid.

Violations of IHL were rampant throughout these activities, which might leave one dismayed about the mentality of undergraduate students, but in reality war crimes are often committed anytime, anywhere, and by any army. And that was precisely what Atchison hoped each student would understand by semester’s end.

“They saw how easy it is to commit war crimes, and understand why they happen even when people know better,” said Atchison. “By the end, the students also wanted each other to be held accountable for the violations; the exercises gave them insight into why there is such a pressing need for the prosecution of war crimes.”

Valpo_beth-vanschaakThe students staged trials for each IHL violation, ultimately convicting Atchison as the commander responsible for the sniper attacks and convicting themselves for the artillery violations; however they dismissed the battlefield triage incident since the latter is a violation of IHL, but not technically a war crime.  Students had two assignments in addition to the final. Each wrote a paper on one area of interest within IHL.  And, Atchison approached Santa Clara University Professor of Law Beth Van Schaack, now Deputy to U.S. Ambassador-At-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, for assistance with an exercise in which students negotiated a draft treaty on the creation of an International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Acts of Terrorism (ITPAT). Lastly, students determined if Israel is violating IHL in Palestinian regions in the final written exam.

Atchison achieved her goals for the IHL course, and her outreach to the Red Cross has led to other projects. Currently she is collaborating with them on a paper about teaching IHL to undergraduate students, and the Red Cross has asked Valpo to participate in a pilot program that engages students to teach IHL to their peers.  She is planning a peer-educator workshop for the pilot in the fall, and has applied for a grant that will allow her to bring Red Cross student volunteers from Bradley University to Valpo for the workshop.

“A recent Red Cross survey indicates that American youth are undereducated about the Geneva Conventions—the basis for IHL—and they are also comfortable with acts that are violations of IHL,” said Atchison.  “Our hope is that the peer-education program will start to change both of those things.”