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Polish students begin exploring humanitarian law


Encouraging young people to think about humanitarian issues in today's violent world is the aim of an ICRC programme called Exploring Humanitarian Law. Launched in 2001, it is getting underway in some 70 countries worldwide. The ICRC's Marcin Monko reports on progress in Poland.


Exploring Humanitarian Law in class 

  EHL aims to bring a humanitarian dimension to the way young people think about events at home and abroad. Promoting knowledge and understanding of international humanitarian law among young people is an attempt to encourage respect for the law when they are older. Since its launch in 2001, EHL has been initiated in more than 70 countries.    

Some sixty years ago it was the centre of the Warsaw Jewish ghetto, just a few minutes'walk from Umschlagplatz – the point where tens of thousands of Polish Jews embarked on their last journey to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Today, it is a peaceful green residential neighbourhood close to the thriving downtown district of Warsaw, the capital of Poland.
This is where the Prince Poniatowski secondary school is located. It is one of 40 schools in Poland that joined the Exploring Humanitarian Law pilot project in Autumn 2004.
The school itself has a particular history: it was established in 1919 at the end of the First World War with the aim to educate former soldiers, many of them teenagers. The school was named after Prince Jozef Poniatowski, a renowned military commander when Poles struggled for independence in the early 19th century. Today " Poniatowka " , as students call their school, leads the educational rankings in Warsaw, and cherishes its historical links with the armed forces.

 Meeting an EU pledge  

This is the setting in which Ms. Urszula Ciborowska introduces students to international humanitarian law. " There is no better place to start a programme like Exploring Humanitarian Law than here in Warsaw, in this school " , says Ms. Ciborowska. Genius loci, they say, spirit of the place.

  Student Zuzanna Kulinksa takes the floor in an EHL class at the Prince Poniatowski school, Warsaw© ICRC Budapest 
The Ministry of Education and Sport approved the programme earlier this year in a move to fulfill a pledge made by the European Union (EU) at the International Conference of Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2003. EHL will be included in courses on civic education, defence education and history for students aged 16-19.
The Polish Red Cross is helping to introduce EHL in schools and is managing this year's pilot project. Technical and financial support is provided by the ICRC's regional delegation for central Europe, based in Budapest, Hungary. The Red Cross has also commissioned the translation of teaching materials.

 Polish military in action  

" People ask me if there is a real need for such classes and why in Poland, where we did not have war for more than half a century " , says Boris Poleganow, EHL programme coordinator at the Red Cross HQ in Warsaw. " I tell them, Polish soldiers serve in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Kosovo, on the Golan Heights, in Lebanon and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Young people have to know what it means in real terms. Obviously there is no war in Poland, but we need better understanding of what war is and that even wars have limits " .
Students generally like EHL classes, because they are encouraged to discuss and share their views. " Wars are fortunately only on TV here, but it still good to talk about these problems, because everybody has his opinion and lessons shed a different light on what we learn in history classes and see in the media " says Zuzanna Kulinska after her first EHL class.
Zuzanna is a student at " Poniatowka " , and a volunteer at the Warsaw office of an international human rights organization. After the Beslan school tragedy in Russia, humanitarian issues have come into sharper focus for young people. At the same time humanitarian NGOs are mushrooming in Poland, and the country is expected to engage fully in the EU's humanitarian policy.


  Eastern Europe on the move

  By introducing the programme, Poland joined the region's EHL leaders, Lithuania and Croatia, which have already brought humanitarian law into their secondary education systems. The ICRC has also secured EHL commitments from education ministries in Bulgaria, Latvia, Romania, and Slovakia for the first half of 2005.    

In joining western European alliances, Poland achieved its major foreign policy goals and now seeks to position itself globally. World issues are starting to enter public discussion. " It's a very good time to begin thinking about other people's needs and problems " , says Boris Poleganov.

 Growing number of schools  

The number of schools included in the EHL programme is expected to rise during the school year as more teachers receive training from the Red Cross and the National In-Service Teacher Training Center, a government institute. The Red Cross hopes that by the end of 2006 EHL will be taught in 800 secondary schools – about a third of the total number.
Dr. Paul Vundi is a Kenyan who married in Poland and decided to stay on. He teaches English at a Catholic secondary school in the Bielany district of Warsaw. In his classroom overlooking the river Vistula, he shows a film about child soldiers in Liberia.
" My medical experience and African background give me special authority when I talk to students about the humanitarian issues " says Dr Vundi. He could not practice medicine in Poland but he finds it rewarding to teach. He has introduced EHL in the two Warsaw schools he works in.
" And by the way, EHL is a noble way to teach English! " says Dr. Vundi.