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Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries
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Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
. -- CONVERTED MERCHANT VESSELS
This Article is new and was inserted following a recommendation made by the experts in 1937. It sets forth a rule which was [p.188] previously implicit. In this connection, Louis Renault wrote as follows in 1899: "It goes without saying that, if a ship is assigned to duty as a hospital ship and the adversary is notified thereof, there must be no change in its status throughout the duration of the war. Otherwise abuse might occur; a ship might be assigned to hospital duties in order to enable it to reach a given place in safety, and there it could be converted for use in hostile operations" (1).
A hospital ship may be put out of service. But, as the English text states clearly, it "cannot be put to any other use".
In our opinion, the Article is not applicable to hospital ships belonging to neutral countries (Article 25
). In such a case there is no risk of abuse and it would be a strange reward for the charitable endeavours of neutral countries to limit their liberty in this way!
There are two reasons for the present provision. In the first place, it is designed to prevent a merchant vessel from being camouflaged as a hospital ship for the purpose of crossing a danger zone or breaking through a blockade and then resuming its original course in complete safety, or even being used as an auxiliary cruiser or troop transport. Secondly, the provision is intended to afford to hospital ships all desirable stability and permanence. It is, in a way, the price to be paid for the immunity granted to enemy ships even in the midst of hostilities. Much confusion would arise if hospital ships could be converted repeatedly. They must be known and recognized so that their safety may be ensured. If the belligerents know that such ships can never be used to supplement the adversary's war strength, they will be more inclined to respect them and encourage their use. Moreover, in the interests of persons in need of treatment, any hasty or superficial conversion is to be deprecated.
Mossop has given examples of hospital ships put to other uses in special conditions. He adds in the same publication (2) that the corollary of this provision is that it should not be possible for any merchant vessel in a besieged port to be converted into a hospital ship and notified as such in order to escape the enemy.
[p.189] A provision of this kind, intended to prohibit any last-minute conversion, was included in the draft Convention revised at the Stockholm Conference in 1948. It was rejected by a majority of one at the Diplomatic Conference. The delegate who successfully opposed the proposal spoke as follows: "If the ship notified was really a hospital ship, there was no reason for not protecting it; if it was not a hospital ship, the interceptor had the right to seize it" (3).
Since no general provision was adopted on the matter, each case must be considered individually. It is to be hoped that here as elsewhere the belligerents will act in all sincerity, and will neither prevent the commissioning of a hospital ship which has been properly equipped in order to meet real needs, nor use the Geneva emblem to cloak a ruse of war.
* (1) [(1) p.188] See ' Actes ' of the 1899 Conference, p. 32;
(2) [(2) p.188] See MOSSOP op. cit., p. 404. See also
OPPENHEIM-LAUTERPACHT, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 503, note 1
(3) [(1) p.189] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949, ' Vol. II-A, p. 72;