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Other protected persons: humanitarian workers, journalists, medical and religious personnel

29-10-2010 Overview

Protected persons in wartime are all those who benefit from protection under treaty-based and customary international humanitarian law. These persons are specifically the sick, wounded, shipwrecked, prisoners and civilians not taking direct part in the hostilities, but the law also covers others such as medical and religious personnel, humanitarian workers and civil defence staff.

The law of armed conflict, and in particular the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, provides protection for a range of victims of war. The initial focus was on the sick, wounded, shipwrecked, and prisoners of war, but after the terrible suffering endured by civilians in World War II, they were specifically included.

The general principle is respect for the life, security and dignity of those not taking, or no longer taking part in hostilities. All parties to a conflict whether State or non-State actors are bound by international humanitarian law (IHL) and required to respect and ensure respect for its rules.

In today’s wars, the main victims are civilians living in conflict zones. IHL rightly focuses on their need for safety and security. But there are also other less numerous groups who fall into the category of non-combatants who have particular protection needs on the battlefield. These include medical, religious and humanitarian personnel, civil defence staff and even journalists. All these groups can face danger, and threats to their safety and freedom to carry out their work.

IHL provides for the protection not only of the wounded, sick and shipwrecked themselves, but also of the people who look after their physical and spiritual needs – medical personnel, administrative support staff and religious personnel, who are not to be attacked and must be allowed to fulfil their medical or religious duties. IHL also establishes a comprehensive and detailed protection for medical units, transports and material.

During the past decade, the ICRC has observed a deterioration in security conditions facing humanitarian workers in the field. This has not led to a questioning of the operating principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality, but has brought about a reappraisal of certain aspects of ICRC action.

In many of the complex conflicts, often involving a variety of non-State actors, the ICRC has intensified its efforts to ensure a clear understand of and respect for its role. This has involved a more concerted action with other aid agencies to minimize negative or hostile perceptions among belligerents.

The ICRC believes that developing trust and acceptance by local communities affected by armed conflict is key to the safety of relief workers. Maintaining a clear distinction between humanitarian and military operations is also crucial to security. The ICRC also puts great stress on the skill and professionalism of its staff in the field.

IHL also applies to many tasks carried out by civil defence personnel such as evacuation, fire fighting, decontamination and disposal of the dead. Some 15 tasks are covered in all.   Civil defence staff carrying out these activities, and not taking part in hostilities, may not be the object of attack. Equipment, vehicles and buildings are also protected.

Civil defence is identified by a distinctive sign set out in Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions – an equilateral blue triangle on an orange background.

This sign does not have the same status as the red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems used by the medical services of armed forces and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, as defined by the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols.

Security incidents in recent years involving journalists working in conflict zones has led to an international debate on ways to improve their protection. This was an issue identified by the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in November 2007.


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© ICRC / C. von Toggenburg / co-e-00919