Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
Treaties and Documents
Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries
Historical Treaties and Documents
Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
-- PROTECTION OF PERMANENT MEDICAL
PERSONNEL OF THE ARMED FORCES
1. ' Categories of personnel and their functions '
Article 24 refers to the official medical personnel and chaplains of the armed forces. To be entitled to immunity, they must be employed exclusively on specific medical or religious duties. They are to be furnished with the means of proving their identity provided for in Article 40
Such personnel fall into three categories -- the first three listed above (in the introduction to the present Chapter of the Commentary). These categories, which had already been distinguished in the 1906 and 1929 Conventions, will be considered separately.
A. ' Medical personnel proper. ' -- These are the doctors, surgeons, dentists, chemists, orderlies, nurses, stretcher-bearers, etc., who give direct care to the wounded and sick. Together with the second category, they form the Medical Service of the armed forces.
It is for each power to decide the composition of its Medical Service and to say who shall be employed in it. To be assured of protection, however, they must be exclusively employed on the duties which are enumerated in limitative fashion in the Conventions -- namely the search for and collection, transport and treatment of the wounded and sick, and the prevention of disease. This exclusive assignment to certain [p.219] duties applies only to medical personnel, and it was at this price that the States agreed in the Geneva Convention to accord special immunity, even on the battlefield, to members of the enemy's armed forces. The words "exclusively engaged" indicate that the assignment must be permanent, which is not the case in Article 25
dealing with auxiliary personnel.
The fact that the enumeration of the duties of medical personnel is limitative by no means implies, however, that a member of the medical staff may only be assigned to one of these duties; he may be employed on several, or even on all of them, provided he is debarred from duties not included in the list.
The 1949 Conference added prevention of disease to the list. In modern armies, hygienic and prophylactic measures for the prevention of disease -- inoculation, delousing, disinfection of water supply, and so on -- form an important part of the work of the medical staff. It was consequently necessary to include such measures among the duties which personnel of the Medical Service may carry out.
B. ' Administrative staff. ' -- These are persons who look after the administration of medical units and establishments, without being directly concerned in the treatment of the wounded and sick. They include office staff, ambulance drivers, cooks (male or female), cleaners, etc.
Like the previous category, they form part of the Medical Service of the armed forces, and accordingly had to be accorded the same immunity as medical personnel proper. They form an integral part of medical units and establishments, which could not function properly without their help.
They too must be exclusively assigned to the Medical Service.
C. ' Chaplains. ' -- Chaplains are members of the armed forces whose role in regard to the victims of war is not medical but spiritual -- although they are often called upon to give help of a more material nature to the wounded on the battlefield. The principle of placing them on the same fooling as medical personnel in the matter of privileges goes back to the 17th century, and is mentioned in several contemporary agreements between the commanders of armies. In 1864 it was recognized as a matter of course that ministers of religion should be protected. Their devotion in bringing the solace of religion and moral consolation [p.220] to the wounded, the sick and the dying is well known. They are present at the last moments of men who have been mortally wounded. They hear any requests the latter may have to make, and officiate at their burial.
It is clear from the text of the Convention that chaplains need not be exclusively or even partially assigned to the wounded and sick. They are protected as chaplains, even when -- as most often happens -- their duties extend to the forces as a whole. Like medical personnel, they must obviously abstain from all hostile acts.
On the other hand, chaplains, to be accorded immunity, must be attached to the armed forces. They do not attach themselves. The decision will rest with the competent military authorities and the relationship must be an official one. Accordingly, ministers of religion who wish to serve in a non-official capacity, are not covered by the Convention, and, until such time as they have been regularly appointed, act at their own risk and peril.
In actual fact, many actual or prospective ministers of religion are enlisted as combatants. Religious services for their comrades in arms are occasionally asked of them. For this reason Article 36 of the Third Convention of 1949
provides that in case of capture -- when, unlike regular chaplains, they become prisoners of war -- they are to be treated as retained chaplains if they are called upon to minister to their fellow captives.
2. ' Respect and protection of permanent personnel '
Article 24 provides that medical personnel are to be "respected and protected in all circumstances". This is the classic formula, employed since 1906; we have already met it in Articles 12
dealing with the protection of the wounded and of medical units, and in considering those two Articles, have already referred to its value and the shades of meaning attached to it. (1)
The words "in all circumstances" make it quite clear that medical personnel are to be respected and protected at all times and in all places, both on the battlefield and behind the lines, and whether retained only temporarily by the enemy or for a lengthy period.
[p.221] Nevertheless, to enjoy immunity, they must naturally abstain from any form of participation -- even indirect -- in hostile acts. We saw in Article 21
(2) that the protection to which medical units are entitled ceases if they are used to commit acts "harmful to the enemy". This proviso obviously applies to medical personnel also.
The corresponding Article of the 1929 Convention stated specifically (in paragraph 2) that medical personnel were not to be treated as prisoners of war if they fell into enemy hands. This provision has now been dropped, the retention of medical personnel by the enemy being dealt with in new provisions (Articles 28
to 32) which we shall examine later.
* (1) [(1) p.220] See above, pages 134 and 196;
(2) [(1) p.221] See above, page 200;
See the Commentary of 2016