Civil defence

29-10-2010 Overview

Civil defence aims to mitigate the loss, damage and suffering inflicted on civilians as a result of the dramatic development of the means and methods of warfare. It is an essential component of the protection of civilians against military operations provided by international humanitarian law.

International humanitarian law defines civil defence according to humanitarian tasks rather than referring to the organizations that carry them out.

The purpose of these tasks is to provide protection for the civilian population against the dangers arising from hostilities or other disasters, helping it to recover from the immediate effects of such events and providing the conditions necessary for its survival.

While civil defence organizations are protected under the international humanitarian law rules applicable to all civilians and civilian objects in general, it is Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, adopted in 1977, that makes protection specific.

The Protocol lists the tasks that are recognized as civil defence activities. They are limited to fifteen:

  • Warning;
  • Evacuation;
  • Management of shelters;
  • Management of blackout measures;
  • Rescue;
  • Medical services – including first aid – and religious assistance;
  • Fire-fighting;
  • Detection and marking of danger areas;
  • Decontamination and similar protective measures;
  • Provision of emergency accommodation and supplies;
  • Emergency assistance in the restoration and maintenance of order in distressed areas;
  • Emergency repair of indispensable public utilities;
  • Emergency disposal of the dead;
  • Assistance in the preservation of objects essential for survival;
  • Complementary activities needed to carry out any of the tasks mentioned above.

Parties to an international armed conflict are prohibited from attacking the personnel, buildings and equipment of civil defence organizations. To this end the international community adopted a distinctive sign to identify civil defence organizations, an equilateral blue triangle on an orange background.

In occupied territory the responsible authority must provide civil defence organizations with the necessary facilities to carry out their work.

Protection of civilian civil defence organizations ceases if their personnel commit or are used to commit acts harmful to the enemy. To avoid this being interpreted too freely, Protocol I lists activities that should not be considered harmful such as military direction of civil defence activities or the carrying of light individual weapons to maintain order.

The Protocol also provides guidance on the protection afforded to military civil defence personnel. For example, they are covered as long as they do not take a direct part in hostilities and are carrying out the humanitarian tasks described in the Protocol. They must carry the distinctive triangular sign and be operating on the territory of their own State.

States must ensure that civilian and military structures meet the civil defence requirements of Protocol I, that their military personnel are aware of their obligations and that the distinctive civil defence sign is understood and not misused.


International humanitarian law - Civil defence 

© Reuters

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