ICRC databases on international humanitarian law
  • Print page
Commentary - Part IV : Civilian population #Section I -- General protection against effects of hostilities #Chapter VI -- Civil defence
    [p.713] Part IV, Section I, Chapter VI -- Civil defence


    Introduction

    2319 Civil defence (1) has an important place in the effort undertaken by international humanitarian law to mitigate the losses, damage and suffering inflicted on the civilian population by the dramatic developments of the means and methods of warfare, particularly when modern weaponry is used in violation of the principles and rules of the law of armed conflict.

    2320 As a matter of fact, it was natural for international humanitarian law to contribute to promoting civil defence; the need and efficacy of this were widely demonstrated particularly during the Second World War and in subsequent conflicts. Civilian losses were certainly fewer in bombed towns where civil defence had been organized than in those where it had not. (2)

    2321 From the point of view of international humanitarian law it is basically a matter of granting civil defence organizations a status ensuring them protection in the performance of their task, (3) and a distinctive sign enabling them to be identified. Such a legal development is perfectly in accordance with the objectives of the Conventions which, as the ICRC stated in 1971, "do not merely demand that belligerents respect and treat certain categories of persons humanely", but "from as early as 1864, the very first of the Geneva Conventions, and its subsequent versions, have endeavoured to provide protection and special facilities to the personnel and organizations which help war victims". (4)

    [p.714] 2322 The concern to strengthen the protection of personnel coming to the aid of the civilian population in general made it possible for the 1949 Conventions to provide special protection for personnel of civilian hospitals and for civilian medical transports. (5) However, as we pointed out, (6) the rules devoted to the general protection of civilian populations against the effects of hostilities were not greatly developed during the Diplomatic Conference of 1949. In fact, apart from occupied territories, that Conference did not deal with the question of civil defence personnel. Yet these people are also indispensable for the protection and survival of the population, as shown by the following words written by the ICRC when in 1971 it described them:

    "namely those persons who rescue civilian wounded from under ruined buildings to take them to first aid posts or hospitals; the persons who fight fires, who provide displaced persons with emergency relief and social assistance and who take precautionary measures for the protection of the population". (7)

    2323 In fact the Fourth Convention broaches the question of civil defence only in the context of occupied territories. Article 63 , paragraph 2, of that Convention grants civil defence organizations and their personnel, like National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the right to pursue their activities even under foreign occupation. (8)

    2324 However, studies carried out by the ICRC since 1954 on the general strengthening of protection for the civilian population, from the beginning showed "the provisions of Article 63 to be inadequate in the opinion of many experts". (9)

    2325 To be effective, civil defence activities should be safeguarded everywhere and not only in occupied territory. However, according to such experts, there should be a "clearer distinction between the civil defence services performing solely civilian duties and the units on civil defence duties which were military or of military status" (10)

    2326 The ICRC then introduced into the Draft Rules for the Limitation of the Dangers Incurred by the Civilian Population in Time of War (1956), (11) Article 12 , paragraph 1, which reads as follows: "Parties to the conflict should facilitate the work of the civilian bodies exclusively engaged in protecting and assisting the civilian population in case of attack."

    [p.715] 2327 Although the Draft Rules were not followed up by governmental action, "the authorities in several countries, at that time or later, displayed considerable interest in that article". (12) This led the ICRC to study this subject in depth. (13)

    2328 A first report was submitted to the XXth International Conference of the Red Cross (Vienna, 1965). (14) This Conference recognized "the necessity of strengthening the protection provided by international law to civil defence bodies", and requested the ICRC "to continue its work in this field". (15)

    2329 A subsequent report submitted to the XXIst International Conference of the Red Cross (Istanbul, 1969) led the Conference to invite the ICRC to convene a meeting of government experts "with a view to submitting to Governments, for approval, regulations supplementing the provisions of the existing humanitarian conventions". (16)

    2330 The question was taken up by the ICRC in the Conference of Government Experts which met in 1971 and 1972, and Articles 54-59 of the 1973 draft, devoted to civil defence, were written on the basis of the work of that Conference.

    2331 It should be added that the work of the CDDH was made all the more difficult for, as shown by the Rapporteur of the Drafting Committee of Committee II,

    "while civil defence was an almost entirely new subject in the system of Geneva law, it was an area in which considerable developments had taken place at the national level over recent years. Those two facts made it very difficult to find an appropriate international solution to the related problems". (17)

    2332 The CDDH in general, and Committee II in particular, deserve all the more credit for coming up with this solution. (18)

    2333 In conclusion, three further remarks should be made with respect to this Chapter on civil defence.

    2334 First, the provisions of this Chapter do not in any way seek to have an impact on the options that present themselves in the field of civil defence, in particular whether to provide shelters for the civilian population where they live, or to evacuate them. (19) Civil defence tasks are protected irrespective of the solution that will be adopted.

    [p.716] 2335 Secondly, it should be stressed that respect for the provisions concerning civil defence is in itself quite inadequate if it does not go together with respect for the rules relating to the conduct of hostilities: methods such as successive bombardments of the same place, or the use of time bombs in densely populated areas would make any civil defence activities very hazardous and virtually suicidal.

    2336 Finally, efforts made with regard to civil defence also fall under the more general heading of precautions to be taken against the effects of attacks in order to protect the civilian population. (20)

    ' Y S. '


    NOTES

    (1) [(1) p.713] As regards the terminology, a distinction should really be made between civil defence in the broad sense (in French "protection civile") and civil defence in the narrow sense (in French "défense civile"). As the ICRC had already noted in a report in 1965, civil defence in the broad sense generally comprises all measures for national defence which are not of a military nature (including, in particular, measures to safeguard the position of public authorities, to maintain public order, public services including the health service, the maintenance of public morale and the protection of the war industry), while civil defense in the narrow sense constitutes only part of this (measures aimed at saving lives and limiting damage). The English term "civil defence", which is mainly used in this narrow sense, and it will be exclusively used in this narrow sense in this commentary. Cf. ' Status of Personnel of Civil Defence Organisation, ' report submitted by the ICRC at the XXth International Conference of the Red Cross (Vienna, 1965), Geneva, May 1965, p.1;

    (2) [(2) p.713] In this sense, cf. particularly O.R. XII, p. 73, CDDH/II/SR.61, paras. 24-25; p. 80, para. 59;

    (3) [(3) p.713] In this sense, cf. particularly ibid., p. 74, para. 32;

    (4) [(4) p.713] CE/3b, p. 140;

    (5) [(5) p.714] Cf. Arts. 20-22, Fourth Convention;

    (6) [(6) p.714] Cf. particularly introduction to this Section, supra, p. 587;

    (7) [(7) p.714] CE/3b, p. 141;

    (8) [(8) p.714] For more details, cf. ' Commentary IV, ' p. 330 (Art. 63);

    (9) [(9) p.714] CE/3b, p. 142;

    (10) [(10) p.714] Ibid;

    (11) [(11) p.714] On this subject, cf. introduction to this, supra, pp. 587-588;

    (12) [(12) p.715] CE/3b, p. 143;

    (13) [(13) p.715] See in particular, ' Status of Personnel of Civil Defence Organisation, '' op. cit., and with some additions, Status of Civil Defence Service Personnel, document presented by the ICRC at the XXIst International Conference of the Red Cross (Istanbul, 1969), Geneva, May 1969;

    (14) [(14) p.715] ' Status of Personnel of Civil Defence Organisation, ' op. cit;

    (15) [(15) p.715] Resolution XXIX;

    (16) [(16) p.715] Resolution XV;

    (17) [(17) p.715] O.R. XII, p. 272, CDDH/II/SR.80, para. 31;

    (18) [(18) p.715] On civil defence in Protocol 1 and on the work which ended with the adoption of Articles 61-67, cf., in particular, E. Schultz, ' Civil Defence in International Law, ' Copenhagen, 1977; B. Jakovljevic, ' New International Status of Civil Defence, ' The Hague-Boston-London, 1983; ' Handbuch des Deutschen Roten Kreuzes zum IV. Genfer Rotkreuz-Abkommen und zu den Zusatzprotokollen -- Zivilschutz, ' Bonn, 1981;

    (19) [(19) p.715] On this subject, cf.' Handbuch des Deutschen Roten Kreuzes..., ' op. cit., p. 37;

    (20) [(20) p.716] Cf. Art. 58, sub-para. (c);