• Send page
  • Print page

Factsheet on the 1977 Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions

31-05-2007 Legal Fact Sheet

The main instruments of international humanitarian law are the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 for the protection of war victims. These treaties protect the wounded, the sick, the shipwrecked, prisoners of war and civilians. However, the Conventions left gaps in important areas, such as the conduct of hostilities and protection of civilians from the effects of hostilities. To remedy these shortcomings, two Protocols were adopted in 1977.

   

International humanitarian law is a set of rules which, in time of war, protects those who are not, or no longer, taking an active part in hostilities, and limits the choice of means and methods of warfare. It applies both in situations of international and non-international armed conflict. The main instruments of international humanitarian law are the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 for the protection of war victims. These treaties, which are universally accepted, protect the wounded, the sick, the shipwrecked, prisoners of war and civilians. They also protect medical duties, medical personnel, medical units and facilities, and the means of medical transport. However, the Conventions left gaps in important areas, such as the conduct of hostilities and protection of civilians from the effects of hostilities. To remedy these shortcomings, two Protocols were adopted in 1977. They supplement, but do not replace, the Geneva Conventions of 1949:    

  They are:

  Protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims Of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I);

  Protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II)
 
   
(PDF file/289 k) Help 

   
 

    

 What is the purpose of Protocol I I?  

Protocol I applies to international armed conflicts, imposing constraints on the way in which military operations may be conducted. The obligations laid down in this instrument do not impose an intolerable burden on those in charge of military operations since they do not affect the right of each State to defend itself by any legitimate means.

This treaty came into being because new methods of combat had been developed and the rules applicable to the conduct of hostilities had become outdated. Civilians are now entitled to better protection from the effects of war.

Protocol I provides a reminder that the right of the parties to conflict to choose means and methods of warfare is not unlimited and that it is prohibited to employ weapons, projectiles, material or tactics of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering (Art. 35).

 What new provisions does Protocol I contain?  

Protocol I extends the Geneva Conventions’ definition of international armed conflict to include wars of national liberation (Art. 1) and specifies what constitutes a legitimate target of military attack.

Specifically, Protocol I :

a) prohibits indiscriminate attacks and attacks or reprisals directed against :

  • the civilian population and individual civilians (Art. 48 and 51);

  • civilian objects (Art. 48 and 52);

  • objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (Art. 54);

  • cultural objects and places of worship (Art. 53);

  • works and installations containing dangerous forces (Art. 56);

  • the natural environment (Art. 55);

Most attacks or other acts carried out in violation of these prohibitions are, subject to certain provisos, considered grave breaches of humanitarian law and classified as war crimes.

b) extends the protection accorded under the Geneva Conventions to all medical personnel, units and means of transport, whether civilian or military (Art. 8-31);

c) lays down an obligation to search for missing persons (Art. 33);

d) strengthens the provisions concerning humanitarian relief for the civilian population (Art. 68-71);

e) protects the activities of civil defence organizations (Art. 61- 67);

f ) specifies measures that must be taken by the States to facilitate the implementation of humanitarian law (Art 80-91).

Article 90 of Protocol I provides for the establishment of an International Fact-Finding Commission to investigate alleged grave breaches or other serious violations of the Conventions and of Protocol I. Many States Parties to Protocol I have accepted the competence of this Commission.

 What is the purpose of Protocol II ?  

Most conflicts since the Second World War have been noninternational. The only provision in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which is applicable in this type of conflict, is Article 3 common to all four Conventions. Although it sets out basic principles for protecting people/persons in wartime, Article 3 is not enough to solve the serious problems of humanitarian concern that arise in internal conflicts.

Hence, the purpose of Protocol II is to ensure the application to internal conflicts of the main/basic rules of the law of war. It nevertheless in no way restricts the rights of the States or the means avail able to them to maintain or restore law and order; nor can it be used to justify foreign intervention (Art. 3 of Protocol II).

Compliance with the provisions of Protocol II does not, therefore, imply recognition of any particular status for armed opposition groups.

 What new provisions does Protocol II contain?  

Unlike Article 3 common to the four Conventions, which fails to set criteria for the definition of internal conflict to which it applies, Protocol II describes its own field of application in considerable detail, excluding such low-intensity conflicts as internal tensions and rioting.

The situations covered by Protocol II are non-international conflicts that take place on the territory of a State between the armed forces of that State and rebel armed forces that are under responsible command and control part of the national territory.

Common Article 3 planted the seed of humanitarian considerations in law relating to civil war. Protocol II takes this modest beginning much further.

Specifically, Protocol II :

a) strengthens the fundamental guarantees enjoyed by all persons not, or no longer, taking part in the hostilities (Art. 4);

b) lays down rights for persons deprived of their liberty and provides judicial guarantees for those prosecuted in connection with an armed conflict (Art. 5- 6);

c) prohibits attacks on :

  • the civilian population and individual civilians (Art. 13);

  • objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (Art. 14);

  • works and installations containing dangerous forces (Art. 15);

  • cultural objects and places of worship (Art. 16);

d) regulates the forced movement of civilians (Art. 17);

e) protects the wounded, sick and shipwrecked (Art. 7);

f ) protects religious personnel and all medical personnel, units and means of transport, whether civilian or military (Art. 9- 11);

g) limits the use of the red cross and red crescent emblems to those persons and objects duly authorized to display it.

 Why adhere to the Additional Protocols?  

Additional Protocols I and II of 1977 have been accepted by a large number of States, but not all. It is essential that they attain universal recognition, as this is a vital step toward fulfilment by all parties to conflict of the obligations laid down in the Protocols.

Only when all States have pledged compliance with all the instruments that make up international humanitarian law will it be possible to ensure equal protection for all victims of armed conflict.

Through its Advisory Service on international humanitarian law, the ICRC stands ready to provide States interested in ratifying the Additional Protocols with any assistance and information. In particular, the Advisory Service can supply a Protocol Ratification Kit to facilitate the process.