Atrocity Actors; Perpetrators, Bystanders and Victims


Course Objective

1. Students should have knowledge of, and insight into, selected
theories that explain the behaviour of perpetrators and bystanders
during conflict situations as well as the consequences thereof for the

2. Students should be able to describe and explain selected theories on
the behaviour of perpetrators and bystanders as well as evaluate their
relevance in a situations of conflict.

3. Students should be able to apply the theories to various situations
and case studies involving conflict related crimes and mass atrocities;

4. Students should be able to analyse the etiology and consequences of
conflict related crimes on a micro- and meso-level through a sound
academic argumentation.

5. Students need to show evidence of a critical attitude in relation to
existing theories and an original, investigative and creative attitude
in their application and analysis to the case studies.

Course Content

This course focuses on the most important actors when conflict related
crimes are perpetrated, namely the perpetrators, bystanders and victims.
It will be explained how and why perpetrators are able to commit such
atrocious acts and why bystanders decide to intervene or remain passive.
In addition, the consequences of these crimes for the victims will be
discussed. In doing so the course has an interdisciplinary nature with
an emphasis on socio-psychology.
Throughout the course we will discuss and debate the thesis that
perpetrators of international crimes are merely ordinary people who
commit their crimes because they find themselves in extraordinary
circumstances. We will delve into various socio-psychological mechanisms
and assess their importance in situations when international crimes are
committed. Students will get acquainted with various classic
socio-psychological experiments such as the Milgram obedience
experiment, the Stanford prison experiment and Asch’s conformity
experiment and discuss their implications. Since atrocity crimes are
often perpetrated by militarized units we will also touch upon military
culture, training and its effects on individuals. The course will also
discuss the most relevant ‘bystander theories’ such as Darley and
Latane's observations on the ‘bystander effect’ and the reasons why some
individuals decide to rescue the victims will be touched upon. With
regards to the consequences of international crimes, the course will
focus in particular on the psychological consequences victims may face.
For all three actors, their role in transitional justice mechanisms will
be assessed once a conflict comes to an end.

Teaching Methods


Method of Assessment

Paper and written assignments


Alette Smeulers and Fred Grunfeld: International Crimes and Other Gross
Human Rights Violations, A Multi- and Interdisciplinary Textbook,
Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2011

Online articles and texts to be announced via Canvas.

Target Audience

Apart from regular students, the course is also available for:
Students from other universities/faculties
Exchange students
Contractor (students who pay for one course)

The extracurricular and exchange students should send a cv to
Maartje Weerdesteijn ( and get approval for their

Custom Course Registration

A maximum of 50 students may attend this course.

General Information

Course Code R_Perp.bysta
Credits 6 EC
Period P4
Course Level 500
Language of Tuition English
Faculty Faculty of Law
Course Coordinator dr. M. Weerdesteijn MSc
Examiner dr. M. Weerdesteijn MSc
Teaching Staff dr. M. Weerdesteijn MSc

Practical Information

You need to register for this course yourself

Teaching Methods Lecture, Study Group
Target audiences

This course is also available as: