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Justice & The Generals
El Salvador
Around the World
About the Film
Photo of a child on a swing
Education - Lesson Plans
Introduction Lesson Plans Further Practice National Standards

Lesson  #3
  Printable Format


International humanitarian law requires nations to prevent human rights violations and punish individuals who commit the most egregious crimes. Four Geneva Conventions set parameters for states committing grave offenses, but do not provide a framework for penalties, nor do they establish a criminal tribunal. Often, crimes are tried in countries --such as the United States-- where they did not occur, as long as extradition is permitted. The challenge is to ensure that all countries' national courts "exercise universal jurisdiction" over serious international law crimes that occur within their nations.


Students will:
  • identify the types and extent of human rights violations that occurred in El Salvador

  • analyze the various laws and statutes that dictate the processes to protect and punish war crimes and human rights violations

  • construct a law that ensures protection of human rights worldwide
Estimated Time

6-7 classroom periods


Recommended Film Segments

Minutes 01 to 19 : ( Watch it now for T1 or 56k )
Minutes 30 to 54 : ( Watch it now for T1 or 56k )
Minutes 70 to 82 : ( Watch it now for T1 or 56k )

Teaching Procedure

1) On the chalkboard, create a schematic web for the term HUMAN RIGHTS. Have students brainstorm associations with the term. Ask students to consider what human rights entails, how to protect human rights, examples of human rights abuses, etc. Chart responses under appropriate emerging headings. Synthesize associations to highlight the term's various concepts. Have students briefly discuss additional ideas and points of view.

2) Distribute the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Divide students into 10 groups, giving each group three different declaration articles to review (there is a total of 30 articles). Distribute several sheets of chart paper and one marker to each group. Have each group select one recorder.

3) Instruct each group to first read the entire declaration and then focus on and discuss its selected articles, noting key points, concepts, and any questions the articles raise for the recorder to list on chart paper. Invite each group recorder to present his or her team's findings to the class. Facilitate a brief student discussion on the declaration's goals and the perceived challenges in ensuring its implementation and practice worldwide.

4) Introduce the premise of Justice and the Generals, outlining the alleged human rights violations committed during El Salvador's Twelve-Year War. Explain that there are laws that govern acceptable wartime acts and set clear mandates for what constitutes unethical behavior, but the challenge is ensuring that nations worldwide abide by these statutes. Show students the recommended film segments and pose the following questions (or distribute as a worksheet).
  • What incident resulted in the Ford v. Garcia trial?

  • Who was tried and convicted for the churchwomen's murder? How did this trial come to be?

  • In your opinion, were the guardsmen guilty of the murder?

  • Were the opposition forces guilty of human rights abuses? Discuss.

  • During the trial, what was the plaintiff's primary argument? What was the defense's primary argument? What absolved the generals of the crime?

  • In your opinion, is it possible for a military leader not to be aware of his or her subordinate's wartime acts? Explain.

  • Was there evidence that El Salvador's military was involved in war crimes? Explain and provide examples.

  • Why were the generals tried in the United States and not in El Salvador? What laws provided for this option?

  • What international laws and policies exist that govern war crimes and human rights violations?

  • Do you think that military personnel in non-leadership positions must always follow commanders' orders? What is the responsibility of subordinates regarding war actions that involve torture and other human rights abuses? Explain.
5) Have students briefly revisit the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and relate its tenets to the situation in El Salvador. Ask students to identify human rights violations that occurred in El Salvador, who committed them, and how, given the declaration and apparent laws, these abuses occurred. Ask students how the declaration's purpose and goals can actually be implemented and practiced, if situations such as those in El Salvador exist.

6) Distribute and have students read International Humanitarian Law. Invite students to discuss their understanding of what the law entails. Ask students to reflect on the film to determine ways in which this law can be violated.

7) Divide students into eight groups. On eight 1" x 8" strips of paper, write the following terms, one per strip (add other appropriate terms derived from the film and the reading materials):
  • The Geneva Convention (as it relates to war crimes and human rights abuses)

  • Alien Torts Act

  • Torture Victim Prevention Act

  • International Humanitarian Law

  • Universal Jurisdiction

  • Rome Statute of International Criminal Court

  • Extradition (in regards to trying human rights violations)

  • International Criminal Tribunals
8) Fold the strips and have each group choose one. Instruct each group to research the selected topic. Students should:
  • summarize the law or concept and define its basic purpose and elements.

  • define how the law or concept is structured/designed to prevent human rights abuses and support the punishment of war crimes and human rights violations.

  • describe the loopholes in the law or concept that prevent the punishment of war crimes and human rights violations.

  • provide specific examples of how the international world has adhered to or disregarded the law or concept (there are several situations, such as those in Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia, Argentina, Haiti; Justice and the Generals mentions some of these nations. Students may also reflect on the incidents of World War II.)

  • note any changes in the law or concept that have altered the status of human rights protection.

  • note any pending change in the law or concept that will improve the status of human rights around the world.

  • note how the law or concept played a role in the Ford. v. Garcia trial, and what might have been altered to ensure appropriate punishment for all involved.
9) When students have completed their research, have each group present its findings and conclusions. Encourage each group to take notes.

10) Using their understanding of human rights policies and international humanitarian law, and the way some nations have interacted with these statutes and mandates, have students, in their same groups, construct a law that would end all international war crimes and human rights violations. Have each group, representing an actual or fictitious human rights advocacy organization, introduce this law at mock meeting of a United Nations War Crimes Committee. Instruct the "committee," at the end of the group presentations, to combine the best elements of the proposed law and create a formal statute that all nations must follow. Students may opt to send their recommendations to human rights organizations, the United Nations, and other related entities of their choice.

Assessment Recommendations

Assessment should be informal and focus on student contributions to group and class discussions, participation in group projects and presentations, interaction with group partners, and capacity and willingness to negotiate controversial and complex subject matter. Keep in the mind the challenging topic, allowing students to work at their knowledge and skill levels. Assessment may be rubric-based or students can use journals to document their understanding of the materials and topic and assess their involvement in projects and discussions.

Extended Activity

  • Many nations continue to violate international humanitarian law. Students can research these nations and create a chart or graph that rates their status in terms of human rights abuses, as well as the types of abuse that are most common in each one.
  • Some nations have made strides in reducing human rights violations. Working in small groups, students can research a country and create a timeline to chart its past and current approaches to human rights abuses. The timeline should indicate specific events that forced the nation to alter its policies.
  • Some would argue that the United States, while an advocate of international humanitarian law and proponent of trials against those committing war crimes, does not always take as active a stance in human rights matters. Students can research United States' role in human rights (overseas and in the United States), highlighting in what areas it has taken strong and not so strong leads, and where it needs to reinforce its involvement and commitment.
Related Web Sites

The World's Most Wanted Man

Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights

Facts on File: War Crimes Tribunals

Red Cross/Latvia

Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflicts

Alien Tort Claims Act of USA

Human Rights and U.S. Policy

International Criminal Court

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