ICRC databases on international humanitarian law
  • Print page
Commentary - Art. 27. Chapter III : Hospital ships
    ARTICLE 27. -- COASTAL RESCUE CRAFT


    PARAGRAPH 1. -- RESCUE CRAFT

    Most of this Article is new. The Tenth Convention of The Hague of 1907 ensured some protection for "small craft which may be used for hospital work", but the reference appeared only in Article 5, paragraph 3 , concerning the distinctive marking, which is rather odd, to say the least of it. One might also mention Article 4 of the Eleventh Convention of The Hague of 1907, which provided that vessels charged with philanthropic missions were exempt from capture.
    [p.172] At the 1948 Stockholm Conference, thanks to the efforts of the various sea rescue organizations (1), it was acknowledged that coastal rescue must be afforded adequate protection through appropriate regulations. In many countries, and in particular the Scandinavian countries where off-shore fishing is on a large scale, such craft are of great importance from the humanitarian point of view.
    The new Article 27 was drawn up by the Diplomatic Conference on the basis of the text proposed by the Stockholm Conference, and it was discussed in close conjunction with Articles 22 , 24 and 26 (2).
    Coastal rescue craft must be respected and protected in the same way as hospital ships, wherever they are operating. Article 30 refers to their use, and the commentary on that provision should be consulted. The protection is not absolute, however; it is afforded "so far as operational requirements permit". This wording was used in order to take account of the risks incurred by such craft, because of their small size, in a zone of military operations. The limitation also has regard to past events and to the requirements of military security (3). Thus, although lifeboats may in practice be exposed to certain risks, a belligerent which has recognized them will never be allowed to make a deliberate attack on them, unless they have committed a grave breach of neutrality. Reference should be made to the commentary on Article 30, paragraph 4 , in this regard.
    In order to be entitled to immunity, small craft must fulfil certain conditions. First, they must be utilized by the State or by officially recognized lifeboat institutions. As regards the status and duties of such institutions, the reader should refer back to the commentary on Article 24 (4). In the case in question, it is clear from the English text that the lifeboat institutions are not required to be officially recognized solely for coastal rescue work.
    It should not be inferred from the reference in Article 27 to Article 22 that rescue craft should in wartime be solely, or at [p.173] least principally, used for assisting shipwrecked military personnel. Article 27 mentions "coastal rescue operations" in general. Moreover, the purpose of the provision is to enable relief societies to continue their charitable work even in time of conflict, though it will more often be for the benefit of civilians. The present Article is therefore applicable to rescue craft for the assistance of victims who may be military personnel, or civilians, or both, according to circumstances.
    The expression "coastal rescue operations" does not mean that the small craft concerned may operate only near the coast. If humanitarian considerations obliged a small craft to go to a point some considerable distance from the coast, it would none the less remain protected. This is obvious from Articles 30 and 31 , which will be referred to later.
    It was proposed at Stockholm in 1948 that vessels used by private persons should also be protected; that idea was dropped in 1949, as it would have opened the way for abuse, in the absence of any proper control. One can well conceive that the owners of small pleasure craft might describe them as rescue craft in order to keep them safe. All desirable guarantees would seem to be afforded if such craft are employed by the State or by relief societies.
    There is a further requirement -- namely, that the conditions provided for in Articles 22 and 24 (relating to hospital ships) must be observed. That means that the names and characteristics of such small craft must be notified to the Parties to the conflict at least ten days before they are employed in war-time; furthermore, small craft utilized by relief societies must also have been given an official commission and must be provided with certificates of the responsible authorities, stating that they have been under proper control. For further details, the reader may refer to the commentary on Articles 22 and 24 (5).
    As regards the centralization of descriptions of rescue craft and periodic notification to the Powers, the reader should refer to the commentary on Article 22 (6).
    At Stockholm and subsequently at Geneva, a number of delegations proposed that protection under the Convention should be [p.174] granted only to slow craft, i.e. of a speed not exceeding twelve knots. The intention was to prevent any possible abuse, such as their use for military reconnaissance. The Diplomatic Conference was not persuaded by such arguments, but considered that it was in the interest of the wounded and shipwrecked to be rescued and landed as rapidly as possible.
    Lastly, rescue craft must be marked, and this will be referred to again in connection with Article 43 (7).
    As regards the status and protection of the crews of such craft, the reader should refer to the relevant passage in the commentary on Article 36 (8).

    PARAGRAPH 2. -- INSTALLATIONS ON LAND

    This provision was drawn up at the Diplomatic Conference, as a consequence of the preceding paragraph. The services which rescue craft are supposed to provide would be jeopardized if they could be deprived of their fixed bases ashore. Prior to the 1949 Convention, the Ninth Convention of The Hague of 1907 might have been invoked in this connection.
    What do such installations comprise in practice? They may consist of medical establishments (first-aid stations, stores of medical supplies, etc.) and buildings and the like used for technical purposes (boat-houses, repair workshops, fuel dumps, etc.).
    Under the present Article, such coastal installations must be protected "so far as possible". This phrase is never very welcome in a Convention because of its vagueness and is similar to that mentioned above, in paragraph 1: "so far as operational requirements permit". It was introduced partly for the same reason, namely the difficulty of identifying small establishments in the event of operations directed against a point on the coast.
    Protection is naturally valid as regards land or air forces (9) just as in the case of naval forces, and whether in the case of an [p.175] attacking or an occupying Power. In this regard, reference should be made to the commentary on Article 23 .
    Protection is dependent on an obvious condition -- namely, that the coastal installations concerned must be used exclusively by rescue craft for their humanitarian missions. It is a cardinal principle of the Geneva Convention that immunity is granted only to those who observe strict neutrality.
    We shall examine the problem of marking coastal installations in the commentary on Article 43 (10).


    * (1) [(1) p.172] See Gilbert GIDEL: "La protection des
    embarcations de sauvetage", ' Revue internationale de la
    Croix-Rouge, ' September 1955;

    (2) [(2) p.172] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
    Conference of Geneva of 1949, ' Vol. II-A, pp. 71, 108,
    152 and 202;

    (3) [(3) p.172] See above, p. 170;

    (4) [(4) p.172] See above, p. 164 ff.;

    (5) [(1) p.173] See above, p. 155 and p. 164;

    (6) [(2) p.173] See above, p. 155;

    (7) [(1) p.174] See below, p. 243;

    (8) [(2) p.174] See below, p. 205;

    (9) [(3) p.174] Whenever attention is given to the possibility
    of revising the First Convention of 1949, it would be
    appropriate to insert in it a reference to coastal
    installations of this kind;

    (10) [(1) p.175] See below, p. 244;