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What are the provisions of humanitarian law governing use of the emblem?


Extract from ICRC publication "International humanitarian law: answers to your questions"

The Geneva Conventions mention three emblems: the red cross, the red crescent and the red lion and sun, although only the first two are now being used.

The Conventions and their Additional Protocols contain several articles on the emblem. Among other things, they specify the use, size, purpose and placing of the emblem, the persons and property it protects, who can use it, what respect for the emblem entails and the penalties for misuse.

  • In times of armed conflict, the emblem may be used as a protective device only by:

  • armed forces medical services;

  • National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies duly recognized and authorized by their governments to lend assistance to the medical services of armed forces; the National Societies may use the emblem for protective purposes only for those of their personnel and equipment assisting official medical services in wartime, provided that those personnel and equipment perform the same functions and only those functions and are subject to military law and regulations;

  • civilian hospitals and other medical facilities recognized as such by the government and authorized to display the emblem for protective purposes (first-aid posts, ambulances, etc.);

  • other voluntary relief agencies subject to the same conditions as National Societies: they must have government recognition and authorization, may use the emblem only for personnel and equipment allocated exclusively to medical services, and must be subject to military law and regulations.

International humanitarian law also speci fies that each State party to the Geneva Conventions is required to take steps to prevent and punish misuse of the emblem in wartime and peacetime alike, and to enact a law on the protection of the emblem.

Use of the emblem  

Use of the emblem for protective purposes is a visible manifestation of the protection accorded by the Geneva Conventions to medical personnel, units and transports.

Use of the emblem for indicative purposes in wartime or in times of peace shows that a person or item of property has a link with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The ICRC is entitled at all times to use the emblem for both protective and indicative purposes.

Misuse of the emblem 

Any use not expressly authorized by IHL constitutes a misuse of the emblem. There are three types of misuse:

  • imitation, meaning the use of a sign which, by its shape and/or colour, may cause confusion with the emblem;

  • usurpation, i.e. the use of the emblem by bodies or persons not entitled to do so (commercial enterprises, pharmacists, private doctors, non-governmental organizations and ordinary individuals, etc.); if persons normally authorized to use the emblem fail to do so in accordance with the rules in the Conventions and Protocols, this also constitutes usurpation;

  • perfidy, i.e. making use of the emblem in time of conflict to protect combatants or military equipment; perfidious use of the emblem is a war crime in both international and noninternational armed conflict.

Misuse of the emblem for protective purposes in time of war jeopardizes the system of protection set up by IHL.

Misuse of the emblem for indicative purposes undermines its image in the eyes of the public and consequently reduces its protective power in time of war.

The States party to the Geneva Conventions have undertaken to introduce penal measures for preventing and repressing misuse of the emblem in wartime and peacetime alike.


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