ICRC databases on international humanitarian law
  • Print page
Commentary - Art. 40. Chapter VII : The distinctive emblem
    [p.309] ARTICLE 40 -- IDENTIFICATION OF MEDICAL
    AND RELIGIOUS PERSONNEL


    PARAGRAPH 1. -- THE ARMLET OR BRASSARD

    1. ' Wearers '

    The only change from the 1929 text as regards the armlet or brassard -- the distingushing mark which allows medical personnel to be recognized from far off -- is that it is to be water-resistant.
    As before, all permanent medical personnel and chaplains are entitled to wear the armlet, whether they belong to the Medical Service, a Red Cross Society or any other recognized relief society of either a [p.310] belligerent or neutral country. These persons are designated in Articles 24 , 26 and 27 . The arrangements made for temporary medical personnel, who may now wear a special armlet, will be seen when we come to Article 41 .
    Under Article 44, paragraph 2 , National Red Cross Societies may not make use of the armlet in wartime for activities which are not protected by the Geneva Convention -- that is, other than their work with the Medical Service. The armlet, consequently, is always a protective sign.

    2. ' Description '

    As in 1929, the brassard is to "bear the distinctive emblem". This being a red cross on a white ground, there is no necessity, in theory, for the armlet itself to be white. On the other hand, it is expressly laid down in Article 41 that the special armlet worn by temporary medical personnel is to be white.
    In any case, it is now the custom everywhere for all medical personnel to be provided with a white armlet bearing a red cross and it is to be hoped that this practice will remain. Besides being easier to manufacture, such armlets are the only ones which give good visibility, owing to the contrast of colours.
    The armlet is to be "water-resistant". This provision, which aims at keeping it in good condition, must be regarded as being in the nature of a recommendation. The fact that an armlet is not waterproof could obviously not be held to deprive it of its protective value.
    As in the case of the red cross generally, the form and dimensions of the brassard are not specified -- and for the same good reasons. It is again laid down, however, that it is to be affixed to the left arm -- "affixed" , because it is not intended to be taken off and put on again at will, and the risk of loss must be avoided; "on the left arm", because it is desirable that it should be worn in a stated position, where the eye will naturally look for it. Here again, a belligerent could not claim the right to deny protection to a medical orderly who for some plausible reason wore the brassard on his right arm.

    3. ' Stamp of the military authority '

    What is above all essential is to ensure the ' bonafides ' of the wearer: the armlet must only be worn by those who are entitled to do so under the Convention.
    [p.311] The brassard is not in itself sufficient evidence; as has been remarked, it is a simple matter to make an armlet and to slip it on -- in which case the wearer is liable to a penalty, even if he wears the brassard for its legitimate purpose while coming to the assistance of the wounded. The belligerents must have proper safeguards.
    The armlet will have no protective value, and cannot be lawfully worn, unless it has been stamped and issued by the military authority. This time the condition is an essential one, admitting of no exception. Issue alone no longer suffices, as it did in 1864; the official stamp must be there to show that the armlet has been issued by, and on the responsibility of, the military authority. The enemy can, of course, only satisfy himself on this point in case of capture; but a possible check of this sort is most valuable and should prevent abuses.
    What "military authority" is competent to stamp and issue the armlet? As we pointed out in reference to Article 39 , where the expression "competent military authority" is used, this point was deliberately left vague in 1929, and with good reason.
    In 1929, even the word "competent", which had formerly appeared in the provision that now corresponds to Article 40, was deliberately dropped, on the ground that the issue of armlets might be particularly urgent in certain circumstances, and should therefore be facilitated. We feel, however, that the subtle distinction thus drawn was an unreal one. Article 39 has a general sense, and applies also to the brassard. Besides, the need for displaying the emblem on buildings or vehicles might be quite as urgent as the issue of armlets. Most important of all, the question of competence, as we said in reference to Article 39 , is a private matter for the armed forces of each individual country.
    Whether or not the word "competent" appears in the text, the use of the emblem must clearly be controlled by an official military authority fully aware of its responsibility, and cannot be left to the initiative of the first comer. What is necessary under the present Article is that an official military authority, whose name appears on the stamp, should be responsible for issuing the armlet.
    We now turn to the question of whether a commander is entitled to issue the armlet to persons to whom he has appealed, in the sense of Article 18 , to help care for the wounded. In view of the restrictive character of the provisions governing the use of the emblem (Articles 40, [p.312] paragraph 1, and 44, paragraph 1 ), we believe that in general the answer is "No", but circumstances may justify exceptions. (1)

    4. ' Use ot the flag by medical personnel '

    Useful though the brassard is, it cannot be said to be perfect as a means of identification, Being small, it will not always be sufficiently visible at a distance to ensure the safety of those wearing it. A practice frequently adopted by medical orderlies and stretcher-bearers who are detailed to collect the wounded between the lines, is for one of them to carry and wave a white flag bearing the red cross.
    There is nothing to prevent this in the Convention. A group of medical orderlies, however small -- one, even -- must be regarded as a medical unit. Use of the flag in such circumstances must naturally be absolutely ' bonafide '; it may not under any circumstances be used to cover fighting troops.
    The best way to ensure the security of medical personnel would undoubtedly be for them to wear a special uniform, the same in all countries and different as regards colour from the uniforms worn by fighting troops. This idea was suggested when the Red Cross was first founded; but it has not so far been adopted. Perhaps one day it will be taken up again.

    PARAGRAPHS 2 AND 3 --- THE IDENTITY CARD

    The armlet is not in itself sufficient to etablish the status of the wearer. If he falls into enemy hands, he must be able to prove that he is entitled to wear it. He must also be in a position to prove that he is a member of the medical or religious personnel, in order that he may enjoy the status accorded to him under the Convention, and be eligible for repatriation. A special identity card is therefore necessary.

    1. ' Standardization '

    The rules regarding identity documents in the 1929 text have been radically altered. The former system lacked simplicity and was not [p.313] uniform. Official personnel proved their identity either from an entry in their pay-book, or by a special document; it was only personnel of National Red Cross Societies and other relief societies assisting the Medical Service of the armed forces, who were required to carry a certificate with a photograph. During both the First and Second World Wars the above rules were observed very perfunctorily. Medical personnel who were taken prisoner were often unable to have their status and their right to repatriation recognized, and the International Committee had endless trouble in helping them establish their identity.
    To eliminate these serious drawbacks, the 1949 Conference adopted a proposal in the revised drafts, to make the identity card uniform throughout the same armed forces. All permanent staff, both medical personnel and chaplains, and whether they belong to the forces or to a Red Cross Society, will now have the same type of identity card.
    It is also recommended that the card should be of the same type in all armed forces. A specimen is annexed to the Convention as a model. (2) It is hoped that the Powers will use it. At all events, the Parties to the conflict must, at the outbreak of hostilities, inform one another of the model they are using.
    Identity cards should be made out, if possible, in duplicate, one card being issued to the bearer and the other kept by the home country. If he is taken prisoner and has lost his card, it will be possible to prove his status by referring to the duplicate. This precaution was recommended by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and should help to avoid disputes. During the preparatory work of revision, certain experts had proposed that duplicates of all identity cards issued should be sent to the International Committee. This course did not appear feasible, however, as Governments are not always prepared to disclose the exact numbers of their medical personnel.

    2. ' Description '

    The various features of the identity card designed by the Conference and the information it is to contain make it a document of real practical value.
    First of all, it is to bear the red cross emblem.
    [p.314] To make it more durable, the card, like the armlet, is to be waterresistant. In some countries it is now entirely covered by a transparent, non-inflammable plastic coating which cannot be removed.
    The card is to be pocket-size. There is a good reason for this; it was found that when identity cards were too big, their owners were apt to keep them in their packs -- which are not normally worn on the battlefield -- or to leave them in their billets.
    The card must be worded in the national language. For practical reasons, the Conference rejected an earlier proposal which would have made it obligatory for the items to be given in several languages; this may obviously still be done if desired, and countries with little-known languages will probably prefer to use a second and more generally known language in addition to their own. Countries with more than one national language will be in a similar position.
    The particulars which must be given are the surname and first names of the bearer, his date of birth, his rank and his service number. States may add whatever further details they desire.
    The card must also indicate in what capacity the bearer is entitled to the protection of the Convention. As a minimum, it would appear necessary to state whether he is a member of the medical personnel or chaplains' branch, the medical staff proper or the administrative staff, whether he belongs to the official Medical Service or to a recognized relief society, and, in the latter case, whether the society is from a belligerent or neutral country.
    Further details seem highly desirable in the interest of the wounded and sick. It should be possible for captured medical staff to be detailed at once for employment in accordance with their particular qualifications. At the Conference, the delegation which proposed this provision had suggested that the "qualification and/or medical duty for which trained" should be specified. This expression does not appear in the final text, but we feel the idea should be kept in mind. Not only would it be useful to distinguish between physicians, surgeons, dentists, medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers, etc., but also to subdivide physicians still further into eye specialists, neurologists, and so on.
    The card must bear the photograph of the owner. This essential means of identification, which was considered too complicated in 1929, is now so widely used that it was accepted without discussion at the Conference.
    [p.315] The same thing was not true in the case of fingerprints. The proposal to make them obligatory was rejected, even though they offer a surer means of identification than photographs, and are more easily obtained. The difficulties were of a sentimental nature: in some countries only criminals, or at all events those accused of offences, have their fingerprints taken, and the public has this association in mind. With time, this prejudice will probably disappear.
    At present, fingerprints are optional; so is the bearer's signature, because illiteracy still exists, in the 20th century, to a greater extent than is generally supposed. Consequently, Governments may decide to have either the bearer's fingerprints, or his signature, or both, on the card; but one or other must appear. It cannot be too highly recommended to have both whenever possible, as this will provide a double check.
    The final condition imposed by the Convention is the most important: the card must be embossed with the stamp of the military authority. It is this stamp which makes the card, like the armlet, authentic. It will be noted that the word "embossed" -- i.e. stamped by pressure -- is used; experience has shown that the usual ink stamps can rub off, and can be imitated with comparative ease. (3)

    3. ' The identity disc '

    At the beginning of paragraph 2, in the sentence which lays down that medical personnel are to carry an identity card, we find the words "in addition to the identity disc mentioned in Article 16 ". These words refer to the disc -- preferably double -- which all military personnel must wear, so that their bodies can be identified in case of death. Further details are given in the commentary on Article 16 . (4)

    PARAGRAPH 4 -- CONFISCATION PROHIBITED. REPLACEMENT

    The Conference retained, and rendered more explicit, the 1929 provisions under which medical personnel may keep their identity papers and wear the armlet in all circumstances, i.e. even when retained by the adverse Party to assist their fellow countrymen who are prisoners.
    [p.316] The provision is a necessary one. In both World Wars medical personnel sometimes had their armlets and cards taken from them -- a convenient way for the capturing State to evade its obligations. Such practices must be strictly forbidden; the special insignia and cards of medical personnel can only be withdrawn by the military authorities of their own armed forces.
    Should the brassard be lost or destroyed, the owner should be issued with a new one. If he loses his identity card, he is entitled to a duplicate. This provision lays an obligation not only on the home Power, but also on the capturing Power which must do all it can to facilitate the transmission of new cards and armlets for captured enemy medical personnel who are found to be without them. During the recent war a large number of identity cards were transmitted to medical personnel in captivity, through the intermediary of the International Committee of the Red Cross.


    * (1) [(1) p.312] See above, page 188;

    (2) [(1) p.313] The model will be found on page 430 below;

    (3) [(1) p.315] In a final Resolution the Diplomatic
    Conference recommended that States and National Red Cross
    Societies should take all necessary steps, in time of
    peace, to provide medical personnel with their identity
    cards and armlets. See below, page 432;

    (4) [(2) p.315] See above, page 171;