Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 1952 


Although the Convention does not define "the distinctive flag of the Convention", there can be no doubt that what is meant is a white flag with a red cross in its centre. This is a matter of common-sense. One cannot imagine the red cross on a white ground being placed in its turn on a flag of another colour. What might conceivably be possible in the case of the armlet, is here excluded by the very fact that we are speaking of a flag, and that the proportions are different to those of the armlet. The need for good visibility, also requires this interpretation. The flag of the Convention will thus have the general appearance of the Swiss flag with the colours reversed.
The word "flag" must be taken in its broadest sense. It is not necessarily made of bunting. Hospitals are often marked by one or several red crosses on a white ground painted on the roof.
The emblem should be flown by mobile units, as well as by fixed establishments attached to the Medical Service, in order to ensure that they receive the protection and respect to which they are entitled. The consent of the military authority is, however, necessary, in application of the general principle expressed in Article 39 . The reader is referred to the comments on that Article.
As we have seen, the armlet must be stamped by the military authority, but a similar measure was not proposed in the case of the flag; stamping would in any case be impracticable where the emblem is painted on a roof.
What is important is that the military authority should take particular care lo ensure that the flag is used only on buildings entitled to [p.320] protection. And the military authority may alone decide to "camouflage" a medical unit (by not marking it) when it considers that such a course is necessary.
During the preparatory work on the Conventions, a number of experts pointed out that modern tactics often prevented the marking of front line units, for fear that this might provide the enemy with information concerning the position and number of troops engaged. As we noted under Article 39 , nothing forbids such a practice; but medical units which are camouflaged in this manner can, obviously, be respected by the enemy only in so far as he can recognize them for what they are.
The 1937 Commission devoted considerable attention to this question. With its own report it included, as an annex, a report by General Schickelé, to which reference should be made. The writer recommended that medical units should not be camouflaged any longer than was absolutely necessary to keep military operations secret; when the actual fighting began, there would be nothing further to hide, and the units should be marked. This recommendation should be acted upon.


The 1906 Convention laid down the general rule that the national flag was to be flown over mobile units and fixed establishments of the Medical Service. This rule was maintained in 1929 for fixed establishments only, being made optional in the case of mobile units. In 1949, it was made optional for both to fly the national flag with that of the Convention.
This solution appears reasonable. It has already been pointed out that on a battlefield, the national flag is a symbol of belligerency and is therefore likely to provoke attack.


Article 19 provides that medical establishments and units which fall into the hands of the adverse Party may continue to function as long as the capturing Power has not itself ensured the necessary care for the [p.321] wounded and sick contained in them. During this period they will only fly the flag of the Convention.
There is no provision here for flying a national flag beside the red cross emblem, as there are objections to flying either the flag of the home country or that of the captor.
Although the paragraph only speaks of "medical units", we believe that this expression covers fixed establishments as well as mobile units. Their position since 1949 is so similar that a distinction in regard to the flag would be pointless.


This provision is identical with the corresponding text of 1929.
The recommendations made are fully justified. The distinctive emblem is serving its most important purpose when it is displayed over mobile units and fixed establishments -- particularly the latter. The large capacity of such buildings means that the safety of a great many people is at stake. Precautions must, moreover, be taken against air raids.
The emblem must be visible from a distance and from all sides. Rigid panels may be used, placed horizontally, vertically, or at an angle to the ground; and large red crosses on a white ground may be painted on the roof and walls, or marked out on the ground using suitable materials. (1) The emblems must be of an adequate size. Experiments carried out by one Government at the request of the International Committee of the Red Cross have shown, for example, that a red cross on a white ground, five metres square, placed on a roof, could hardly be distinguished from altitudes over 2,500 metres. (2)
It is naturally desirable that medical units and establishments should be indicated by night, using, for example, a string of lights to outline the crosses. But the military command is most unlikely to give its consent, a total black-out being the most effective practical means of safeguarding an area against air attack. If medical units whose positions had been [p.322] spotted during the day were lighted up at night, enemy aircraft would be provided with useful landmarks. Lighting might, however, conceivably be used only in case of attack. (3) As noted under Article 19, paragraph 2 , the safety of medical units is best assured by keeping them well away from military objectives.

* (1) [(1) p.321] For further details, see the Report by General
Schickelé: "Visibilité, signalisation et camouflage des
formations sanitaires", attached to the Draft Revision of
the Geneva Convention drawn up by the 1937 Commission of

(2) [(2) p.321] See ' Revue internationale de la
Croix-Rouge, ' May 1936, page 409 (inset);

(3) [(1) p.322] General Schickelé's Report also mentions this