ICRC databases on international humanitarian law
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 AUXILIARY MEDICAL
PERSONNEL OF THE ARMED FORCES
The above provision dealing with the position of "auxiliary medical personnel", as they are usually called, now forms a separate Article. In 1929 it was part of the preceding one.
The distinguishing feature of medical personnel properly so-called, i.e. permanent staff, is that they are employed exclusively on medical duties. We are now concerned with a special military category (1) only employed for part of their time on such duties. Having received special training as medical orderlies or auxiliary stretcher-bearers, they are, when necessary -- that is to say, occasionally -- used by their officers to search for or look after the wounded. For the remainder of their time they will be assigned to other military duties.
In some armed forces, this category, which has not up to the present been very numerous in practice, comprises the regimental bandsmen, [p.222] who receive instruction in medical work. But there is no reason why it should not also include military personnel who are combatants in the true sense of the word.
Such auxiliary personnel must be actual members of the armed forces and cannot belong to a Red Cross Society or other relief society.
Further, they only include auxiliary stretcher-bearers, hospital orderlies and nurses, employed in the search for, or the collection, transport or treatment of the wounded. Chaplains, doctors and administrative staff cannot assume their medical character temporarily.
To be accorded immunity, auxiliary personnel must, as we have said, have received special medical training beforehand, the nature and duration of which are wisely not defined. If it is necessary to make good a deficiency in permanent personnel, such training may even take place in wartime; but personnel filling this temporary role must in any case have had a real training.
The 1929 Conference first introduced the innovation, deciding (by a majority of one), that auxiliary personnel taken prisoner while carrying out their medical duties, were to enjoy the same treatment as permanent medical personnel. They were to have, in principle, the same right as the latter to repatriation. The Conference abandoned the idea of giving them special protection on the battlefield before capture, not considering it possible to authorize them to wear the armlet. (2)
The draft revisions of the Convention, prior to the text adopted by the 1949 Conference, no longer made special provision for auxiliary personnel. The experts were of the opinion that the protection accorded to permanent personnel would be enhanced if they alone were covered. It was also pointed out that the conditions of modern warfare, in which large numbers of prisoners are captured at a time, made it impossible to decide whether some amongst them were, or were not, actually engaged in medical duties when they fell into enemy hands.
The 1949 Convention has retained the category of auxiliary personnel, but with a complete change in the manner in which they are to be protected. They will now be protected "if they are carrying out these duties at the time when they come into contact with the enemy or fall into his hands", i.e. on the battlefield. On the other hand, once in [p.223] enemy hands they will, as we shall see when discussing Article 29
(3), become ordinary prisoners of war without any right to repatriation.
As a logical consequence of its decision, the Diplomatic Conference had to allow auxiliary personnel the use of the armlet, which will, however, only bear a red cross in miniature. This solution, which is not without serious drawbacks, will be discussed in connection with Article 41
Auxiliary personnel must also carry identity documents; but there is no need for them to have a special card. Their ordinary military identity documents must simply specify what special training they have received, the temporary character of their duties and their authority for wearing the armlet. (5)
As we have said, auxiliary personnel are immune if they are carrying out their medical duties at the time when they come into contact with the enemy or fall into his hands. This provision must not be interpreted too literally. A bandsman detailed for medical duties but waiting his turn and not actually engaged in treating the wounded at the moment when his unit is captured, must nevertheless be respected and protected. At that moment he is no longer a combatant or even a bandsman, but a part of the Medical Service.
While the 1949 Conference retained the special category of auxiliary medical personnel, who are semi-combatant (6) and semi-medical, it did not, any more than did previous Conferences, attempt to provide protection for ordinary members of the armed forces who are, in exceptional circumstances, called upon to collect or look after the wounded. It is difficult to see how such protection could have been provided.
To have immunity even on the battlefield, military personnel caring for the wounded had to form a distinct category -- that of medical personnel -- and enjoy a separate status, recognizable by a distinctive emblem and an identity card. If recourse was had to such safeguards, it was because military considerations demanded them. Otherwise the [p.224] risk of abuse would have been too great. It is not straining the imagination to picture combatants approaching an enemy position, ostensibly to assist the wounded, and then opening fire in order to seize it: similarly, a fighting unit might suddenly transform itself into a medical unit, in order to avoid enemy fire.
Therefore, if a military command should, without previous arrangement, send ordinary combatants to collect the wounded, it would be at their own risk. The letter of the Convention would not protect them, even if its spirit would, and their safety would depend not on any legal obligation, but only upon the goodwill of the adversary.
* (1) [(2) p.221] This category is No. 6 in the list given on
(2) [(1) p.222] This did not mean that the enemy had the right
to fire deliberately upon auxiliary personnel collecting
the wounded. If he has by chance recognized them for what
they are, he is bound to respect their status;
(3) [(1) p.223] See below, page 258;
(4) [(2) p.223] See below, page 317;
(5) [(3) p.223] See below, page 318;
(6) [(4) p.223] For convenience, the term "combatants" is used
instead of "ordinary members of the armed forces", to
denote all those who do not belong to the special
categories of permanent or auxiliary medical personnel. In
correct terminology, however, "armed forces" include
"combatants" ' (i.e. ' soldiers bearing arms) and
"non-combatants" (who comprise not only medical personnel
but also various other army services not called upon to
See the Commentary of 2016