ICRC databases on international humanitarian law
Treaties and Documents
1949 Conventions and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries
Historical Treaties and Documents
Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
Art. 25. Chapter III : Hospital ships
. -- HOSPITAL SHIPS UTILIZED BY RELIEF
SOCIETIES AND PRIVATE INDIVIDUALS OF
II. NEUTRAL COUNTRIES
This Article applies, like the preceding one, to hospital ships utilized by private relief societies and assisting the Medical Service of the armed forces, and also to those belonging to private individuals. In this instance, however, such societies or private individuals belong to a neutral country.
The present Article makes provision in the case of war at sea for what has been referred to as "neutral voluntary assistance" in the Commentary on the First Geneva Convention, to which reference should be made (1). The National Red Cross Societies, other officially recognized relief societies (2) or even private individuals in neutral countries can give assistance to the Medical Service of one of the belligerents by making a hospital ship available.
Such hospital ships giving neutral assistance are entitled to the same protection as other hospital ships, and the reader should therefore refer to the commentary on Article 22
Two of the conditions for protection are the same as in the case of all other hospital ships: namely, they must be used for no other purpose, and they must be notified. As regards the latter [p.168] condition, the provision refers back to Article 22
, and the commentary on that Article should therefore be consulted.
Two other conditions, however, are rather different. There is no reference to an official commission or a control certificate as in the case of the ships to which Article 24
applies. The present provision states that such hospital ships must be placed under the control of one of the Parties to the conflict, with the authorization of that Party and with the previous consent of their own Governments. This calls for a brief historical account.
Under the Third Hague Convention of 1899, hospital ships giving neutral assistance had retained a very special status. They depended only on their Power of origin. One might say that they were considered as "charitable privateers" and as such needed to remain fully independent, able to give assistance wherever they thought fit, even, for example, passing from one camp to the other. It was considered contrary to the notion of neutrality that they should submit to the authority of one of the belligerents. The Powers at war had authority over such ships only through Article 4
of the present Convention) (3).
When the 1907 revision was drawn up, that arrangement had not been tried out in practice, and the contrary opinion was adopted. Consistently with the rules laid down for medical units ashore giving neutral assistance, it was specified that neutral hospital ships must in future be placed under the control of one of the Parties to the conflict. They are thus incorporated, as it were, in the navy of that belligerent, which will decide on its own responsibility what use shall be made of the hospital ship (4).
This solution seems the only one consistent with the needs of a unified command, the maintenance of discipline, and sound administration, as well as with the guarantees of security which military operations demand.
The hospital ship must therefore opt for one or other of the opposing sides; once this has been done, it will in no way prevent the ship from rescuing and treating without regard to nationality or any other form of discrimination the wounded and shipwrecked [p.169] in need of assistance, in accordance with the cardinal principle of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions.
The text of the present Article reproduces that contained in the 1907 Convention, and it gave rise to no discussion at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference.
Permission must still be obtained from two sources before a neutral hospital ship can be put into service for one of the Parties to the conflict: the country of origin and the belligerent concerned must both give their consent. It could not be otherwise. These authorizations must obviously be included in the notification to be sent to the Parties to the conflict in time of war, and to all the contracting States in time of peace (5). They will also be recorded in the ship's log. As already stated in connection with Article 24
, the Government of the belligerent State under whose authority the hospital ship has been placed will be responsible for sending the notification.
In conclusion, we wish to point out that the principle set forth in Article 27, paragraph 3, of the First Convention
is equally valid here, because of its general character. It specifies that in no circumstances may the assistance given to a belligerent by a neutral Society be considered as interference in the conflict, that is to say as participation in the hostilities or as a breach of neutrality (6).
* (1) [(1) p.167] See ' Commentary I ', p. 230 ff.;
(2) [(2) p.167] See above, the commentary on Article 24;
(3) [(1) p.168] See ' Actes ' of the 1899 Conference, p. 33;
(4) [(2) p.168] See ' Actes ' of the 1907 Conference, Vol.
III, pp. 293-296;
(5) [(1) p.169] The notification sent by the neutral country
when the hospital ship was brought into service by it is
obviously not sufficient;
(6) [(2) p.169] See ' Commentary I ' pp. 232-233;