Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
Treaties and Documents
Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries
Historical Treaties and Documents
Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977.
Precautions against the effects of attacks
[p.691] Article 58
-- Precautions against the effects of attacks
[p.692] 2239 This article is a corollary to the numerous articles contained in the Protocol for the benefit of the population of enemy countries. It
is not concerned with laying down rules for the conduct to be
observed in attacks on territory under the control of the adversary,
but with measures which every Power must take in its own territory in
favour of its nationals, or in territory under its control.
2240 Belligerents may expect their adversaries to conduct themselves fully in accordance with their treaty obligations and to respect the
civilian population, but they themselves must also cooperate by
taking all possible precautions for the benefit of their own
population as is in any case in their own interest.
2241 From the beginning of its work the ICRC has felt the need to lay down provisions for "passive" precautions, apart from active
precautions, if the civilian population is to be adequately
protected. Article 11 of the 1956 Draft Rules already contained the
norms expressed in this provision.
2242 The experts who convened in 1971 and 1972 (1) generally confirmed that such a provision would be appropriate, and Article 51 of the
1973 draft, with some modifications, has become the present article.
2243 This article did not give rise to as much discussion during the negotiations as did Article 57
' (Precautions in attack). ' However,
during the final debate several delegations indicated that in the
view of their governments, this article should in no way affect the
freedom of a State Party to the Protocol to organize its national
defence to the best of its ability and in the most effective way. (2)
2244 Nevertheless, the fact remains that States have subscribed here to a triple duty to act, which must imperatively be translated into
instructions to be given, and first of all into measures to be taken
already in peacetime, even though, strictly speaking, the article is
only addressed to Parties to a conflict. Some of these measures have
a preventive or precautionary character since they are concerned with
preventing the construction of certain buildings in particular
places, or removing objectives from an area where such buildings are
located, or otherwise separating the population and their homes from
dangerous places. For that matter, as stated above, it is in their
own interest that States should take such measures.
2245 Once again the term "feasible" is used. (3) In fact the Diplomatic Conference often used this expression to illustrate the
fact that no one can be required to do the impossible. In this case
it is clear that precautions should not go beyond the point where the
life of the population would become difficult or even impossible.
[p.693] 2246 Moreover, a Party to the conflict cannot be expected to arrange its armed forces and installations in such a way as to make them
conspicuous to the benefit of the adversary; several delegations
raised this point during the discussion of the article. For example,
one delegate, while accepting the article, explained his position as
"With regard to the interpretation of the provision, with particular reference to sub-paragraph (b), it is the
understanding of my delegation that this provision does not
constitute a restriction on a State's military installations
on its own territory. We consider that military facilities
necessary for a country's national defence should be decided
on the basis of the actual needs and other considerations of
that particular country. An attempt to regulate a country's
requirements and the fulfilment of those requirements in this
connexion would not conform to actualities." (4)
2247 It is clear that authorities with a sense of duty will endeavour to remove the civilian population from areas where the risk of attack
is greatest. Sometimes only certain categories of the population may
be removed in this way: children, mothers, the elderly, the sick etc.
Evacuation requires preparatory measures, often taken even in
peacetime. Sometimes the whole of the population is evacuated.
2248 In this field Occupying Powers only have limited freedom and must comply with the provisions of Article 49
of the fourth Convention:
imperative military reasons, security of the population, proper
accommodation to receive the persons concerned, satisfactory
conditions of transfer (hygiene, health, safety, nutrition, members
of the same family not separated, the Protecting Power be kept
informed). In addition, the Occupying Power may not detain civilians
in any area particularly exposed to the dangers of war unless the
security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand.
It is conceivable that a Party to the conflict would not wish to
jeopardize movement of its own armed forces by allowing civilians to
take over the roads and trains.
2249 As regards civilian objects, it seems clear that moveable objects should be removed whenever possible away from military objectives;
thus a food depot intended for the civilian population should not be
placed next to a fortified position or other defensive installations.
However, the circumstances of war can change very rapidly and a
building or installation which does not seem to be of any military
interest can quickly become a major military objective. It will be
recalled that Article 52
' (General protection of civilian
objects), ' paragraph 2, defines military objectives as:
[p.694] "objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and
whose total or partial destruction, capture or
neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time,
offers a definite military advantage".
2250 Immovable objects cannot be removed and are therefore endangered as a result of being in the vicinity of military objectives; if the
persons located there are to be protected, they must be evacuated.
2251 This sub-paragraph covers both permanent and mobile objectives. As regards permanent objectives, governments should endeavour to find
places away from densely populated areas to site them. These concerns
should already be taken into consideration in peacetime. For example,
a barracks or a store of military equipment or ammunition should not
be built in the middle of a town.
2252 As regards mobile objectives, care should be taken in particular during the conflict to avoid placing troops, equipment or transports
in densely populated areas.
2253 In both cases it is likely that governments are sufficiently concerned with sparing their own population and that they will
therefore act in the best interests of that population.
2254 In this context we refer briefly to the problem of camouflage. If military objectives located in an urban area are camouflaged, for
example, so as to appear to be inoffensive buildings, but the
adversary knows that they exist, the danger for the population is
increased, particularly because of the incidental damage caused by
bombing or artillery fire.
2255 The provision contained in sub-paragraph (b) is also addressed to Occupying Powers which might be inclined to ignore the fate of the
population of the occupied territory and only take into account the
fate and the safety of their own troops. It should be recalled that
in this respect Article 28
of the fourth Convention prohibits
Occupying Powers from using protected persons to shield certain
points or areas from military operations. The same provision is
contained in much greater detail in Article 51
' (Protection of the
civilian population), ' paragraph 7, of the Protocol.
2256 Several delegates at the Diplomatic Conference stressed the fact that for densely populated countries this provision was difficult to
2257 As regards persons, the other measures that can be taken by a Party to the conflict consist mainly of making available to the
civilian population shelters which provide adequate protection
against the effects of weapons. In some countries real efforts are
made to supply the population with such shelters, both collectively
and individually, the latter when every dwelling includes a shelter
for [p.695] the occupants. The organization of well-trained civil
defence services, adequately equipped, can also alleviate the fate of
the civilian population.
2258 As regards objects, those which are entitled to special protection should be kept in mind, such as monuments, hospitals,
works containing dangerous forces, civil defence installations etc.
There too the presence of well-trained civil defence services will
serve to limit damage, for example, through effective fire-fighting.
' C.P./J.P' .
(1) [(1) p.692] ' CE 1927, Report ', Vol. I, pp. 153-154;
(2) [(2) p.692] O.R. VI, pp. 213-214, CDDH/SR.42, paras. 55, 57 and 60; pp. 231, 234-235 and 239, ibid., Annex (Italy,
Republic of Korea, United Republic of Cameroon);
(3) [(3) p.692] In French "pratiquement possible". On the meaning of these words, see supra, commentary Art. 57, p.
(4) [(4) p.693] O.R. VI, pp. 234-235, CDDH/SR.42, Annnex (Republic of Korea). It should be noted here that with
regard to Article 58, Austria and Switzerland made similar
reservations indicating that because of the term "to the
maximum extent feasible", sub-paragraphs (a) and (b) will
be applied subject to requirements for the defence of the