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Commentary - Distinctive emblems
Article 2 - Distinctive emblems

The expression "distinctive emblem" is drawn from the reference in Article 38 of the 1949 Geneva Convention (I) to the red cross as "the emblem and distinctive sign of the Medical Service of the armed forces". Article 8, paragraph 1(f), of Additional Protocol I uses the same expression and defines it as "the distinctive emblem of the red cross, red crescent or red lion and sun on a white ground when used for the protection of medical units and transports, or medical and religious personnel, equipment or supplies." Even though Article 8 limits the scope of this term for the purposes of Additional Protocol I, nothing indicates that Additional Protocol III has understood the wording differently. It follows that the provision under consideration here is devoted to the protective use of the emblems.

1. Paragraph 1

The first paragraph of Article 2 establishes an additional distinctive emblem alongside those already recognized by the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and clearly states that this additional emblem will have a purpose identical to that of its precursors. It is merely a repetition of the purpose of Additional Protocol III as stated in its title.
The second sentence of this paragraph marks a development in treaty law. Article 38 of the First Geneva Convention established a certain hierarchy among the recognized emblems – the sign of the red cross was to be the rule, with the red crescent and the red lion and sun being accepted only as exceptions. As mentioned above in the introduction, the negotiators allowed the use of the latter two signs only by those States that already used them (therefore excluding any other States from subsequently doing so).[33] The particular status given to the red cross explains why the title of Chapter VII of the First Geneva Convention of 1949 refers to the distinctive emblem in the singular. Yet practice has gradually led to the de facto placing of these distinctive emblems on an equal footing. This paragraph explicitly acknowledges this development by declaring the equal legal status of the various emblems (including the one provided for in this Protocol), and logically employs the plural "distinctive emblems".

2. Paragraph 2

Article 2, paragraph 2, provides the official description of the form chosen for the additional emblem. In order to guide the High Contracting Parties wishing to use the new distinctive emblem, reference is made to an illustration of it in the Annex. The choice of this design is the outcome of a long process of research and reflection including visibility tests conducted by the Swiss armed forces. The main criteria that governed its selection were its simplicity, its ease of recognition from a distance (especially from the air) [34] and its lack of any religious, ethnic, racial, regional or political connotation.
Although broad consensus on the shape of the additional emblem had been reached at the time the Protocol was adopted, its name had not been definitively decided, giving rise to the provisional designation of the third Protocol emblem. The name of the additional emblem must meet very precise criteria. It must of course be devoid of any religious or political significance. It must also be linguistically neutral and, if possible, easy to pronounce in at least the three statutory languages of the Movement (English, Spanish and French) and in numerous other languages, including the official languages of the United Nations (especially Arabic, Chinese and Russian).[35] Another factor that had to be taken into account is the possibility of easily adding it to the names of the existing emblems. Lastly, it must be short, easy to memorize and convey a dynamic but serious image.
On this basis, agreement was reached on the term “red crystal” (“cristal rouge” in French and “cristal rojo” in Spanish). The crystal is a sign of purity, frequently associated with water, an essential component of all human life.[36]. This agreement is embodied in Resolution 1 adopted on 22 June 2006 by the 29th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.[37]

3. Paragraph 3

Like the first paragraph, which drew attention to the fact that the third Protocol emblem and the existing emblems serve the same purpose and have equal status, the third paragraph stipulates that the conditions for their use and respect are identical. In other words, this Protocol does not seek to alter the current terms and conditions for using the distinctive emblems by permitting additional categories of persons to use them, or by extending their protection to additional categories of persons or objects, or by modifying the conditions for their respect or protection.
Without reproducing in detail the rules governing the use of and respect for the emblem, the point to be noted here is simply that the red crystal may be used for protective purposes during armed conflict only to identify a limited number of persons and objects. These are first and foremost the medical services of the armed forces. The notion of medical services is not precisely defined, even though it appears several times in the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I.[38] One may generally consider this term to mean the following:
· medical personnel, meaning those persons permanently or temporarily assigned exclusively to medical purposes or to the administration of medical units or to the operation or administration of medical transports;
· medical units, fixed or mobile, permanent or temporary, of a party to the conflict or placed at the disposal of a party to the conflict;
· means of transportation, permanent or temporary, assigned exclusively to medical transportation and under the control of a competent authority of a party to the conflict;
· medical equipment of medical units, transportation, and personnel.[39]

Religious personnel attached to the armed forces may also bear the emblem for protective purposes. The term "religious personnel" includes persons, such as chaplains, who are exclusively engaged in the work of their ministry and attached permanently or temporarily to the armed forces or to medical units of a party to the conflict or placed at the disposal of a party to the conflict.[40]

Protective use of the emblem is not, however, restricted to medical and religious services of armed forces. Indeed, the Fourth Geneva Convention mentions that, under certain strictly defined conditions, civilian hospitals and persons regularly and solely engaged in the operation and administration of these hospitals [41] may also use the distinctive emblems. Additional Protocol I extends this list of civilian entities permitted to bear the emblem by granting the right – also under certain strictly defined conditions – to civilian medical and religious personnel, medical units and medical transportation.[42]

The Geneva Conventions also accord the international organizations of the Movement and their duly authorized personnel the right to use the emblems for protective purposes (but see Article 4 of Additional Protocol III). They further specify that members of relief societies (such as the National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies) are also authorized, in an emergency, to use the emblem on their own initiative while they are engaged in recovering and caring for the wounded, sick or shipwrecked. The Convention requires, however, that the societies be duly recognized and authorized by their government and limits the protective use of the emblem to personnel employed in the same role as the medical personnel of the armed forces and subject to military laws and regulations.[43] In this case, the State must continue to ensure that relief societies do not misuse the emblems.
Finally, the Geneva Conventions complete the list of persons and entities authorized to use the emblem for protective purposes by including hospital zones and localities created on the territory of a party to the conflict to protect the wounded and sick from the effects of war. The draft agreement found in Annex I to the First Geneva Convention provides for the outer precincts and buildings of such areas to be marked by means of the emblems.

4. Paragraph 4

This provision fills a gap in treaty law, which did not make clear whether the medical services of the armed forces of High Contracting Parties may use a distinctive emblem other than that which they normally use (for example the red cross instead of the red crescent or vice versa). Paragraph 4 affirms that this is possible when such use is likely to enhance protection. This flexibility of use, which applies as much to the emblems recognized in 1949 as to the additional emblem of this Protocol, should further consolidate the equal status of the various distinctive emblems.
It remains to be said that this paragraph authorizes the replacement of the usual emblem by only one other; it does not permit the substitution of the usual emblem by a combination of several other emblems side by side. This conclusion logically flows from the use of the singular when authorizing the temporary use of "any distinctive emblem." Moreover, a reading of this paragraph as temporarily accepting a cumulative use of the recognized emblems would constitute a significant departure from prior law. Such a departure would be incompatible with paragraph 3, according to which Additional Protocol III does not seek to modify the recognized conditions for use of and respect for the emblems.


32. See above, p. 177

34. The initially envisaged design was a simple red square on edge. But tests carried out from 21 to 23 August 2000 by the Swiss Army, with the support of the ICRC, demonstrated that the visibility of the red square was slightly inferior to that of the red cross and red crescent under certain circumstances (particularly when observed through a thermal imaging camera). The introduction of a white square in the centre of the red square was recommended, along with more visibility tests, which were carried out from 21 to 27 August 2001 and led to the conclusion that this new emblem would, in all cases, be as easily identifiable as those recognized by the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

35. Article 17 indicates, moreover, that Additional Protocol III was adopted in six languages (English, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, French and Russian) and that the six texts are equally authentic.

36. See Meyer, above note 23, p. 98.

37. In the second paragraph of that resolution, the 29th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent "decides that the Third Protocol emblem will henceforth be designated as the ’red crystal’."

38. The term is also found in Additional Protocol III in the next paragraph of this article, as well as in Article 5.

39. This list defining the notion of medical services is drawn from Pietro Verri, Dictionary of the International Law of Armed Conflict, ICRC, Geneva, 1992, pp. 70-71, and Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, Dictionnaire pratique du droit humanitaire, 3rd edition, La découverte, Paris, p. 497. For definitions of medical personnel, units and means of transport, see Additional Protocol I, Article 8 (c), (e) and (g) respectively.

40. See the First Geneva Convention, Article 40, and Additional Protocol I, Article 18, paragraph 1. For the definition of religious personnel, see Additional Protocol I, Article 8 (d), specifying that religious personnel can also be attached to civil defence organizations of a party to a conflict.

41. Article 18, paragraph 3, of the Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates, however, that the authorization of the State is required before a civilian hospital (recognized as such by the authorities) may be marked by means of the emblem. Article 20, paragraph 2 of the same convention geographically restricts the ability of medical and religious personnel to identify themselves by means of the emblem to "occupied territory and in zones of military operations".

42. Additional Protocol I in large part echoes the conditions already imposed by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Article 18, paragraph 4, stipulates that the consent of the competent authority is needed for medical units and transportation, whether civil or military, to be marked with the distinctive emblem. Article 18, paragraph 3, authorizes the identification of civilian medical and religious personnel by means of the emblem only "in occupied territory and in areas where fighting is taking place or is likely to take place".

43. See the First Geneva Convention, Article 40 .