• Send page
  • Print page

From humanitarian law to action in behalf of humanity


by Erwin Staub, Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst


Erwin Staub,
Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has studied helping behaviour and altruism, and passivity in the face of others' needs. Since the early 80's he has also been studying the origins of human destructiveness and the origins of youth violence. In this article he shares his thoughts on education in humanitarian law. 

Humanitarian law is a powerful legal and moral advance. However, enforcement mechanisms are limited and individuals and groups often do not follow these laws. Even if there were better enforcement mechanisms, upholding the law would primarily be dependent on people caring about other people and their welfare. For individuals, whether an average person or a leader, and for whole groups to behave according to humanitarian law, and to be active bystanders who take action to protect others, even more importantly than knowing the law, they have to adopt as their own the values on which it is based and the principles it embodies. They have to value human beings and their welfare. They also have to be sufficiently free of absorption in their own needs and concern with their own well-being that they will notice and respond to others’ pain and suffering. This is a matter of social conditions, culture and individual characteristics.

 Devaluation of the other versus inclusive caring  

Human being easily draw lines between “us”and “them,” and easily devalue those they identify as them. In many societies a devaluation of whole groups of people develops. Devaluation may serve the purpose of justifying discrimination, while discrimination in turn maintains devaluation. When life is difficult in a society, a devalued group is often selected as a scapegoat, is blamed for life problems, or is identified as an enemy of some ideology that promises a better future. When discrimination against these devalued others intensifies and violence begins, the cultural devaluation that members of the society have absorbed makes it less likely that they speak out against policies and practices that harm the devalued group.

Extreme devaluation means that the devalued other is excluded from the realm of humanity. When this happens, in the psychological experience and perspective of those who devalue, moral values and principles (and therefore, presumably humanitarian laws) stop to apply to these devalued others. Thus, in every society, humanizing those who are defined as “them” and devalued, using words, images, local laws, and so on, is essential if people are to speak out in opposition and engage in political action when policies and practices of persecution arise.

While words and images help in learning acceptance, the primary avenue is experience. In research on rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe it has been found that many of them grew up in families that engaged with the “other,” including Jews, parents teaching acceptance by example. Deep contact with the other–working together cooperatively in schools, for example–helps in de veloping inclusive caring.

 The origins of inclusive caring and respect for humanitarian law:Becoming a caring person  

People are not likely to care about “the other,” if they don’t care about human beings in general, starting with people close to them. To care about people we need to feel cared about. Children are likely to first learn to care about people close to them, parents, teachers, peers, and by extension also learn to care about people further removed from them. Children who experience love, affection and positive guidance will feel good about themselves, see the world as benevolent, and will value other people. However, children who experience neglect, rejection, hostility and bad treatment cannot simply be instructed to care about people. Their experiences will create fear and mistrust of people.

A society that helps fulfill fundamental, basic human needs creates the underpinnings of respect for humanitarian law. There are of course universal physical needs. But there are also universal psychological needs. These include security, a positive identity, a feeling of effectiveness and control over important events, positive connection to other people, reasonable autonomy, and an understanding of the world and of one’s own place in it, as especially important ones.

When these fundamental needs are frustrated in the normal course of events, they don’t go away. Instead, people will often find destructive ways to satisfy these needs. Power over others, joining ideological movements that offer a vision of a better life, connections to other people who are part of the ideological community, a feeling of effectiveness and control and a new comprehension of reality, all help fulfill basic needs. However, people caught up in these movements will become increasingly unconcerned about the welfare of other people–and thus, about humanita rian laws. 

Poverty, great inequality, deteriorating economic conditions, political disorganization and social chaos are among the conditions that make the fulfilment of basic needs more difficult. They frustrate the needs of adults, which makes it less likely that they will be loving and effective socializers of children, whose needs are frustrated in turn. Helping people under these conditions to create community, to provide support to each other, is of crucial importance in enabling them to fulfill their needs constructively, rather than by turning against each other. 

 Healing from past wounds: by perpetrators, victims and bystanders  

Discrimination, persecution, violence usually evolve. At times there is a break in this evolution, which under certain societal conditions may then resume. For example, both in Turkey and in Rwanda, intense violence was followed by a period of relative quiet, followed by even more intense violence. The reason for this evolution is that as actions are taken in a society against members of a group, without forces that counteract this, psychological changes in the population, and social changes in norms and institutions follow, which lead to greater harmdoing. This evolution can end in genocide.

People who have been victims of intense persecution or violence, especially if they are survivors of mass killing or genocide, are usually profoundly wounded. At less intense levels of persecution they may simply feel abandoned by neighbors and friends and feel helpless. After mass killing or genocide, they will feel profoundly vulnerable, insecure, mistrust people, see the world as dangerous. They feel any threat more intensely, and may become perpetrators as they forcefully respond to what they see as a new threat, believing that they must defend themselves against it. Healing can help them live better lives and can make violence by them less likely.

Perpetrators are also wounded. Often their violence is due to past victimization, or a culture that has focused on a past trauma. But engaging in great violence against others is wounding. Perpetrators tend to defend themselves from feelings of empathy and guilt, even after they are defeated and stopped, often by continuing to devalue their victims and maintaining their belief in the destructive ideology that has guided them. Healing by them may open them both to their own pain and to the pain of others, and increase the possibility of reconciliation.

Member of a perpetrator group who were passive bystanders also change in the course of the violent actions of their group. To reduce their own empathic distress, they distance themselves from those who suffer. Acts of harmdoing are often justified by greater devaluation of the victims, by their dehumanization, by their exclusion from the moral realm, not only by perpetrators but also by passive bystanders. Taking some kind of action can help people remain compassionate witnesses. The longer bystanders remain passive, the less likely it is that they will act. There seems to be an exception to this, in the case of genocide. When wide scale murder begins, as if they realized that events have entered a different, truly horrible realm, some people who have earlier been passive become rescuers. Unfortunately, however, in the course of the evolution of violence many passive bystander join the perpetrators.

Healing requires that people engage with their painful experiences, under supportive conditions. The presence of other people who are empathic and caring can help. The presence of people who have similarly suffered can be useful. In Rwanda, we had people in mixed groups engage with their experiences, both survivors and members of the perpetrator group. The presence of both groups may have contributed to the more positive orientation by members of the two groups toward each other. Empathy by members of the perpetrator group may help with reconciliation. The presence of empathic others also helps with another important aspect of healing–regaining trust in people, reconnecting with people. 

Helping children heal is important. We now know that even very young children carry their painful experiences with them and can later be significantly affected by them. Children can be helped by reading about events that enables them, at some remove, to engage with their own experiences. Again, supportive conditions are crucial. This may be followed by children actually talking about their experiences, while receiving empathic, loving support. However, talking about such painful experiences must not be forced. It has to be under the control of the person, at their own pace. The people who guide children or adults in such a process do not have to be professionals, but do require some training.

Ceremonies and commemorations can also help with healing and reconnecting with other people. However, they have to be carefully designed, so that rather than retraumatizing people and enhancing feelings of insecurity, they point to a more hopeful future. 

 Altruism born of suffering: The importance of human connections  

Many people who have been victimized become violent. Past research has focused on people who have been treated with love becoming altruists and active bystanders to others’ suffering. But if that was all there is to caring, we would have serious problems–who would then help in environments where most people are victimized and traumatized? In my recent work I have begun to think and write about the people, and there are many of them, who have been victimized, who have suffered greatly, and who late become caring and helpful. Some of these people devote themselves to helping people in need and to trying to prevent harmful, violent actions against people.

What are the roots of such “altruism born of suffering?” I believe that healing from past trauma is one primary root. Another, connected one, is the experience of loving human connections. Such altruists often report that some people have showed concern, caring, affection for them and provided help to them. As a result, they have come to see the possibilities of loving relations among people and better lives for themselves and for others. As they then open themselves to others’ suffering, their own past experiences intensify their caring and concern.

 Moral courage  

Under many circumstances, to be a compassionate, active bystander, whether to speak out in the political realm against the persecution of others, or to act in specific concrete instances, requires caring values and moral courage. Moral courage is the willingness and ability to speak and act according to one’s values in the face of likely opposition, disapproval, ostracism or even physical danger. Knowing and believing in humanitarian laws can be one of the value bases that motivates moral courage. But in addition to such a motive, having an independent perspective (for example, to see persecution for what it is), the ability to stand on one’s own, and confidence in one’s own voice are all important for moral courage.

Having a voice at home and in school, for example, in the course of participation in making rules at home or in the classroom, can be one way to develop moral courage. This is especially difficult and thus especially important in cultures that socialize children to have very strong respect for authority. Speaking out and thereby standing out is especially difficult in such cultures. Adults require training that creates some degree of transformation if they are to provide childr en with opportunities to use and gain confidence in their own perspective and voice. The example of moral courage by adults is also highly important.

 Understanding the roots of violence as an avenue to healing, reconciliation, and active bystandership  

In our work in Rwanda, my associates and I have found that talking to people about the influences that lead to genocide, and having them apply the understanding of genocide that we present to them to what has happened in Rwanda, has powerful effects. It seems to contribute to both healing and reconciliation. It seems to make survivors feel more human, as they come to see the great violence against them not as incomprehensible evil, but as the outcome of understandable human processes. It also seems to make both survivors and members of the perpetrator group more accepting of each other. It also helps leaders consider policies and actions they can create to prevent renewed violence.

Such understanding can be important for everyone. To create active bystandership, it is important for people to understanding the forces that create passivity, such as pluralistic ignorance, not knowing what other people think and feel, and diffusion of responsibility, the feeling that with so many possible actors, one oneself is not responsible. An important inhibitor of action may be that people usually do not foresee the evolution of violence. They tend to consider a new step in the persecution of the victimized group only by itself, not as part of an evolution. They do not look at how things have already changed and are likely to change further. Seeing a particular human rights violation as one step in an evolution, one step along “a continuum of destruction,” may make early action by them, which is both easier (less dangerous) and more effective (since perpetrators are less committed to their course) more likely.

 The role of leaders and external bystanders  

Often people in other countries, “external bystanders,” are especially important for preventing the evolution of persecution and violence, that is, of human rights violations. Unfortunately, nations have historically remained passive, or complicit. Improvements in the human rights environment have also suffered a reversal with the terrorist attacks on the U.S., following which persecutions by governments of supposed terrorists, without proper legal safeguards, have become more accepted.

How might people deal with leaders who promote destructive ideologies and allow or lead their people to persecution and violence? There can be many and varied reasons for such leaders’ actions. But here again, early, thoughtful, concentrated action by bystanders have had demonstrable effects (for example, in the case of the persecution of the Bahai in Iran), even without a consideration of motives. But understanding the motives of such leaders and engaging with them in a way that is sensitive to their motives and their culture can sometimes be extremely useful. This may be the case when the motives arise out of the group’s past victimization, or perhaps more directly out of these leaders’ own or their family’s suffering in the course of that victimization.

To effectively influence high level leaders may require the informed, thoughtful engagement of governments and high level leaders in other countries. This often does not happen. Another important forms of bystandership is for citizens of countries in which there may be no substantial human rights violations to exert influence on their leaders and governments to be compassionate, active bystanders. For this to happen countries need to develop institutions that will activate such responses by governments and leaders. Students learning about humanitarian law should also learn about the possibilities of becoming active at home in influencing their governments to promote and work in behalf of maintaining humanitarian laws. 



Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Oliner, S. B. & Oliner, P. (1988). The altruistic personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York: Free Press.

Pearlman, L.A. & Saakvitne, K. (1995). Trauma and the Therapist. New York: Norton.

Staub, E. (1989). The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Staub, E. (1998). Breaking the cycle of genocidal violence: Healing and reconciliation. In Harvey, J. (Ed.). Perspectives on Loss. Washington, DC: Taylor and Francis.

Staub, E. (2003). The psychology of good and evil: Why children, adults and groups help and harm others. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Staub, E. (in press.) The roots of goodness: The fulfillment of basic human needs and the development of caring, helping and nonaggression, inclusive caring, moral courage, active bystandership, and altruism born of suffering. In Edwards, C. and Carlo, G. (Eds.) Moral Motivation.  Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press.

Staub, E. and Pearlman, L. A. (2001). Healing, reconciliation and forgiving after genocide and other collective violence. In S. J. Helmick & R. L. Petersen (Eds.) Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public policy and Conflict Transformation. Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

Related sections