Wounded, sick and shipwrecked protected under international humanitarian law

29 October 2010

Protecting the sick and wounded in armed conflict was the founding principle of the First Geneva Convention signed in 1864. It remained the core of IHL as it extended to other aspects of the conduct of war, now consolidated in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, three Additional Protocols, and a series of other treaties.

The First Geneva Convention was inspired by the experiences of Henry Dunant, a citizen of Geneva, on the battlefield of Solferino in 1859. His horror at the suffering of the sick and wounded led him to publish A Memoir of Solferino and mobilize a group of colleagues to press for international action.

The result was the First Convention, signed by just 12 States. The organizing committee set up by Dunant and his colleagues was to become the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Today the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 have achieved universal recognition and have been ratified by every State.

The protection of the sick and wounded is now consolidated in the First and Second Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocols I and II of 1977. The Second Convention essentially extended the protection afforded to the sick and wounded on the battlefield to naval warfare. This also includes protection to the shipwrecked.

"Wounded and sick" is defined as anyone in an armed conflict, whether military or civilian, who is in need of medical attention and is not taking part in hostilities. "Shipwrecked" means military or civilian persons in a perilous situation at sea or on any other waters following a misfortune which has befallen them and who refrain from any act of hostility.

The central principle is that "all wounded, sick and shipwrecked, to whichever party they belong, shall be respected and protected." Appropriate medical attention has to be provided as quickly as possible and without any distinction between military or civilian, friend or foe.

At all times, and particularly after an engagement, Parties to a conflict must immediately take all possible measures to search for and collect the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, to protect them against pillage and ill-treatment and ensure their adequate care, as well as to search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled.

In order to ensure effective help for the sick, wounded and shipwrecked, medical and humanitarian personnel and facilities must be respected and protected in all circumstances. Such protection would only cease if medical facilities were being used for military purposes such as sheltering unwounded soldiers or military intelligence activities.

IHL also protects medical transport, whether military or civilian. Under no circumstances can protected medical vehicles carry active military personnel, weapons or ammunition.

The First Convention created the red cross emblem to identify protected medical personnel and objects on the battlefield. Today the red crescent and red crystal emblems also provide the same protection and their use is strictly controlled under international law. A deliberate attack on personnel, buildings or transport clearly carrying one of the protective signs constitutes a war crime.