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Civil defence 1977-1997 - from law to practice: Executive summary


 1. 1977 - 1997: the changing nature of the world  

The participants expressed the view that our world, and the way it was perceived, had changed considerably since Additional Protocol I (hereafter the Protocol) was signed in 1977. New factors included the following:

*a much stronger United Nations presence in the field, i.e. peace-keeping and humanitarian operations;

*a proliferation of NGOs involved in humanitarian work;

*an apparent lessening of the threat of nuclear conflict and therefore less attention devoted to it by civil defence organisations;

*a shift in the type of conflicts being fought, which had resulted in problems different from those encountered at the time when the Protocol was signed;

*a change in the manner in which civil defence itself was perceived, particularly in Eastern Europe, where it was now less linked to the military structures.

Civil defence organisations had in the past had a sometimes important role to play in the event of armed conflict. But that role - in particular as set out in international humanitarian law - was relatively unknown, even within the ICRC. Not enough had been done to promote knowledge of the role of civil defence organis ations under humanitarian law.

 2. Tasks assigned to civil defence  

A distinction had to be drawn between the civil defence tasks set out in the Protocol, and carried out by a number of different organisations, and the civil defence organisations themselves. The list of tasks laid down by the Protocol was fairly comprehensive, though debate on this question was possible. Activities such as protecting the environment and cultural objects were not covered by Protocol I, Art. 61, but nor were they precluded; the list of tasks enumerated in that provision therefore remained valid. It had moreover to be understood that tasks and priorities would vary according to conditions in different regions and at different levels of economic development, and thus be interpreted and carried out in different ways as a result. While the civil defence organisations could engage in all kinds of work in peacetime, it was necessary that their tasks in times of conflict - those benefiting from protection - be clearly defined. Any work that could be viewed as having military implications could not be expected to enjoy protection in wartime. In long-lasting conflicts, repairs to damaged housing, as opposed to building temporary shelters (the usual method), was an approach requiring further discussion but did not appear incompatible with the function of civil defence.

 3. Action by outside organisations  

In many situations, there was international support for national civil defence activities but this rarely functioned as intended by the Protocol, i.e. that foreign organisations should take action under the direction of the national civil defence body. The reality was that international support tended to take the form of relief work or peace-keeping. The United Nations humanitarian organisations (in par ticular the UNHCR), the ICRC and various NGOs often worked in support of local civil defence organisations but the international bodies essentially retained their separate identities. This seemed preferable since if they allowed themselves to be identified with a civil defence organisation when carrying out certain of their tasks, confusion might result. A shared identity would then present more disadvantages than advantages.

Such cooperation should be developed and encouraged in wartime. In peacetime, there was often cooperation with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on such matters as first-aid training. It was important that the various organisations recognise each others'existence and acted in complementary fashion, not as rivals.

 4. Role of the military  

Consideration was also given to the possible use of military personnel for civil defence activities, placing of civil defence organisations under the direction of - or even merging them with - the military (which is tolerated by the Protocol), but that seemed to entail a number of disadvantages since it would then be more difficult to discern a separate role for civil defence, and there would be a greater temptation to use civil defence organisations for military purposes. In addition, the impression given to the outside world would make it more difficult for them to obtain protection. The tendency was therefore to recommend that emphasis be laid on the civilian nature of civil defence organisations. The trend in Russia and other Eastern European countries - to switch from military to civilian control over civil defence - was noted with approval.

Nevertheless, placing civil defence under military command, which was increasingly the case in Africa in particular, might also present some advantages because of the facilities and means available to the armed for ces. It was felt that this matter required further investigation, especially as it was not clear in such cases who, in the event of armed conflict, would replace the military for conventional civil defence tasks.

 5. Security issues  

There was debate about whether civil defence organisations should be armed. While their members were entitled under the Protocol to carry light weapons, it was felt that this might give them a false sense of security, especially as they could easily forfeit their protection under humanitarian law by using their weapons inappropriately or for the wrong purposes. Moreover, the bearers of these weapons might be seen as a threat and become targets for military attack. It was therefore recommended that the arming of civil defence personnel should, as far as possible, not be considered.

The safety of the personnel of both civil defence and humanitarian organisations remained a delicate problem, in particular in situations where State structures had collapsed. No ideal or simple solutions were available; each present-day conflict had its specific nature and would have to be considered separately in an attempt to find a solution.

 6. Non-international armed conflicts  

Non-international armed conflicts were the most common type these days, but the international rules applying to such conflicts did not specifically include protection for civil defence work, though they did not prohibit those activities either. Clearly, certain provisions applicable to international conflicts (such as those regarding occupied territories) were not, strictly speaking, applicable to internal conflicts, but the general trend was to apply these mutatis mutandis and confer similar protection in the case of i nternal conflict. This trend should obviously also be encouraged in regard to provisions on civil defence, in keeping with Article 18 of Additional Protocol II, which deals with relief societies and relief operations.

In most cases, civil defence organisations were State entities and it was therefore difficult for them to continue performing their duties on territory controlled by a dissident party engaged in an internal conflict. They should nevertheless do their utmost to carry them out nevertheless. If this were not possible, civil defence services should be constituted by the dissident party as an alternative.

Another, even more acute problem was that of conflicts in which basic humanitarian rules were themselves called into question and civil defence activities (as well as humanitarian action generally) ran counter to military objectives. This arose in cases involving forced displacement of populations and genocide. This problem was obviously a very broad one and went beyond the realm of civil defence. It would require further analysis, in particular regarding its root causes. Under international humanitarian law, the only possible way to deal with this was through action of a preventive nature: promoting respect for and compliance with the basic rules and principles of that law. Such programmes should also aim at raising the awareness of members of civil defence organisations regarding the meaning of their mission in such conflicts. Though civil defence workers were often employees of the State, they had a humanitarian role, i.e. one with a moral content, a fact that should be stressed and to which great importance should be attached.

 7. Promoting compliance  

It was important that civil defence rules be known and complied with and that the international emblem be recognised. Public awareness of the rules on civil defence activitie s should therefore be raised.

It was important that national legislation clearly state the protection to be afforded to civil defence organisations in wartime and that measures to repress violations of international humanitarian law include the field of protection for civil defence work.

Co-operation between civil defence organisations was also desirable and there should be an exchange of ideas between the different countries in regard to promotional activities. The ICDO could serve as a link for this.

Regarding armed forces compliance with the rules, stress was laid on promoting knowledge of the rules and the meaning of the emblem as part of general dissemination activities to be conducted by the States. Emphasis was also laid on ensuring adequate knowledge of the rules and emblem among the members of United Nations forces. The United Nations Department for Peace-keeping Operations (DPKO) had a role to play in this respect by reminding the States providing peace-keeping forces of their responsibilities in this area.

The States should be invited to state clearly and publicly (possibly through a notification circulated by the depositary among States party to Protocol I) that their civil defence organisations will carry out the tasks laid down in Article 61 of that treaty and comply with the rules of international humanitarian law, this in order to reassure their potential enemies. This could be done even by States not yet party to the Protocol.

In regard to the role of the organisations that had convened the meeting of experts, the ICRC could place greater emphasis on civil defence and its emblem in that organisation's work to promote knowledge of the law; it could also share its expertise in such matters. As the umbrella body for the various civil defence organisations around the world, the ICDO had an important role to play in promoting the sharing of experienc e between members and promoting knowledge of the international emblem.

 8. Civil defence emblem  

No additions should be made to the emblem - referred to in the Protocol as " the international distinctive sign " . Governments that had made additions should be asked not to do so and to amend their legislation.

If States not party to the Protocol wished to use the emblem they should be allowed and encouraged to do so, provided that they accepted the entire civil defence chapter of the Protocol. The importance was strongly emphasised of adopting appropriate national legislation to regulate use of the emblem and impose penalties for incorrect use and for misuse. It was agreed that the States party to the Protocol should be reminded of that obligation. National legislation might be modelled on the law regarding the red cross and red crescent emblem.

There was lengthy discussion of the use by civil defence personnel of other emblems in addition to the international civil defence emblem. It was clear that medical services operated by civil defence organisations should indicate that they were protected by displaying either the red cross or red crescent emblem or the international civil defence emblem. Other emblems would not afford protection under international humanitarian law.

On the question of whether the international emblem should be the only one used in peacetime, it was stated that existing symbols and identification marks aroused strong feelings of identity among the members of certain organisations. Private organisations working officially in the civil defence field should therefore not be forbidden to use their own signs or symbols, which were often a long-standing means of identification and recognised nationally, in addition to the international emblem. It was noted in passing that the logo of th e ICDO was different from the international emblem.

It should be made clear, however, that only the international civil defence emblem provided protection. The civil defence authorities should therefore ensure that the international emblem was used only when justified by the activities undertaken.

The peacetime range of civil defence activities was broader than those entitled to protection. It was noted that care must be taken to ensure that in wartime the emblem was displayed only in connection with activities entitled to protection under the Protocol.

Regarding the need to improve the visibility and recognition of the protective emblem, it was agreed the States should be invited to adopt relevant measures and conclude agreements as specified in the Protocol and that the ICRC, which had done considerable work on the subject in connection with the red cross emblem, should be asked to exchange information with the ICDO on the subject.

 9. General conclusions  

An item on the agenda posed the question as to whether the rules on civil defence were sufficiently realistic and had retained their validity in modern wars. The experts'conclusion was that the rules remained valid and that efforts must be made to implement them. Emphasis should therefore be placed on the reaffirmation of those rules in order to dispel any doubt and ensure that they remained the basis for further action.

There was agreement that, in contrast to those regarding Red Cross and Red Crescent activities, the rules laid down in Articles 61 to 67 of Protocol I were not well enough known, even in civil defence circles. Emphasis should therefore be placed on the need for broader and more determined efforts to spread knowledge of those rules. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement's dissemination work was w ell known but other specialised institutions in this field (such as the International Institute of Humanitarian Law of San Remo, which held courses for military personnel in particular, and the ICDO) should be encouraged to pay greater attention to the rules regarding civil defence activities for the protection of conflict victims.

Finally, some States not party to the Protocol had agreed, for humanitarian reasons, to implement and include in national legislation the rules set out in the Protocol. This should be encouraged.