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The protection of persons and objects

The protection of persons and objects
A woman carries her child through the debris of buildings and vehicles

International humanitarian law began as a response to the suffering of fighters, of soldiers. The rules laid out in the first Geneva Convention of 1864 go to the codification of medical care for sick and wounded soldiers, and the need for a neutral relief agency to offer impartial medical assistance in times of war.

These rules remain important to modern international humanitarian law, but have also been supplemented and expanded to encompass strong legal protections for all those caught up in armed conflict; not only persons hors de combat – no longer participating in hostilities – such as the wounded, sick and shipwrecked combatants, and prisoners of war, but also those who were never involved in the fighting – such as civilians and medical and religious military personnel.

These various categories of person are entitled to respect for their lives and for their physical and mental integrity. They also enjoy legal guarantees. They must be protected and treated humanely in all circumstances, with no adverse distinction.

More specifically, it is forbidden to kill or wound an enemy who surrenders or is unable to fight; the sick and wounded must be collected and cared for by the party in whose power they find themselves; and medical personnel, supplies, hospitals and ambulances must, at all times, be protected.

There are also detailed rules governing the conditions of detention for prisoners of war and the way in which civilians are to be treated when under the authority of a detaining power. In fact, the entire Third Geneva Convention is dedicated to this. This includes the provision of food, shelter and medical care, and the right to exchange messages with their families.

With respect to the civilian population and civilian objects, the principle of distinction undisputedly provides the foundation for this protection. Direct and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian property, and acts or threats of violence aimed at spreading terror among a civilian population, are strictly prohibited. Similarly, civilians must never be used as human shields or be the subject of reprisals, or retaliation.

Further, there are specific categories of protected objects that are specially recognised and protected. Including, cultural property; objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as food and drinking water; the natural environment; and works and installations containing dangerous forces, for example nuclear power stations.

IHL plays a dual role. The Geneva Conventions don’t only lay out written rules about protecting people and objects, but these rules also provide for a practical means of protection, even on the battlefield.

Red Cross workers displaying the emblems

The laws of war set out a number of clearly recognisable symbols, which can be used to identify protected people, places and objects. The main emblems to be aware of are the three distinctive emblems – the red cross, the red crescent and the red crystal – which are featured below. However, other symbols include the blue shield, which serves to identify and protect cultural heritage, and the international distinctive sign of civil defence.

The original and key purpose of the distinctive emblems is to provide a visible sign of protection for medical personnel and objects. To this day, use of the emblems is restricted to persons, units and vehicles of the medical services of the armed forces, medical and religious personnel, equipment and supplies, and Red Cross or Red Crescent personnel, units and vehicles. When one sees these emblems on an armband, or on the side or roof of a vehicle or building, it means “don’t shoot”. It is an indication that those people or objects are protected under IHL – that is, protected from attack. Deliberate misuse of a distinctive emblem is prohibited.

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