Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 1987 
Medical vehicles
[p.249] Article 21 -- Medical vehicles

General remarks

836 The Conventions protect two types of medical transportation on land: first, the transportation of military wounded and sick undertaken in vehicles of the military medical services; (1) secondly, the transportation of civilian wounded and sick, the [p.250] infirm and maternity cases, though only if they are undertaken by convoys of vehicles or by hospital trains. (2)

837 The aim of the Protocol in this field is to ensure the optimum protection of all wounded and sick persons. Whether they are civilian or military, the wounded and sick, medical personnel, medical units and ' matériel, ' will henceforth enjoy the same right to protection. It was logical also to grant exactly the same protection to all medical transportation, as far as this is possible.

838 The improvement created by the Protocol at the humanitarian level concerns civilian medical vehicles proceeding alone. Such single vehicles were not covered by the Conventions. (3) In addition, civilian medical vehicles, like any other form of medical transports, are also permitted to transport medical or religious personnel or medical materials, while Article 21 of the fourth Convention only permitted the transportation of "wounded and sick civilians, the infirm and maternity cases". (4)

Text of the article

839 The meaning of the expression ' medical vehicle ' was examined above. (5) In addition, it should be noted that amphibious medical transports should be considered as medical vehicles when they are used on land. (6)

840 The concepts of ' respect ' and ' protection ' were also defined above. (7)

841 Medical vehicles must be respected and protected "in the same way as mobile medical units under the Conventions and this Protocol". It should be noted in passing that the first Convention also provides that medical transportation must be protected "in the same way as mobile medical units". (8)

842 To be quite precise, the expression "and unde the same conditions" should have been added in the Protocol to the words "in the same way". Indeed, the Conventions and the Protocol not only lay down the way in which medical units must be protected, but also the conditions under which such protection is granted.

843 As regards the way in which they are protected, the Conventions, like the Protocol, provide that medical units must be respected and protected at all times, and that they ' shall not be the object of attack. ' The reason for these phrases and their meaning were analysed above. (9) Clearly they also apply for medical vehicles.

844 Two conditions are imposed for medical units -- and therefore medical vehicles -- to enjoy the right to respect and protection. One concerns only civilian medical units (and vehicles), the other all medical units (and vehicles). The following comments are again based on references to the relevant provisions.

[p.251] 845 To be entitled to respect and protection civilian medical vehicles must fulfil one of the following conditions:

a) they must belong to one of the Parties to the conflict;
b) they must be recognized and authorized by the competent authority of one of the Parties to the conflict; or
c) they must be authorized in accordance with Article 9 (Field of application), paragraph 2, of this Protocol, or Article 27 of the first Convention.

846 These conditions are listed in Article 12 ' (Protection of medical units), ' paragraph 2, of the Protocol, and explained in the commentary on that paragraph. (10)

847 As regards the condition imposed for all medical vehicles, this is that, outside their humanitarian mission, they shall not be used to commit any acts harmful to the enemy. (11)

' Y.S. '


(1) [(1) p.249] Cf. Art. 35, First Convention;

(2) [(2) p.250] Cf. Art. 21, Fourth Convention;

(3) [(3) p.250] Cf. ' Commentary IV, ' p. 170;

(4) [(4) p.250] It will be recalled that the infirm and maternity cases are included in the definition of the "wounded" and "sick" given in the Protocol: cf. supra, commentary Art. 8, sub-para. (a), pp. 116- 118;

(5) [(5) p.250] Cf. supra, commentary Art. 8, sub-para. (h), pp. 131-132;

(6) [(6) p.250] Cf. supra, p. 246;

(7) [(7) p.250] Cf. supra, commentary Art. 10, p. 146;

(8) [(8) p.250] Cf. Art. 35, also Arts. 19, 21, 22, First Convention;

(9) [(9) p.250] Cf. supra, commentary Art. 12, para. 1, pp. 166-167; and ' Commmentary I ', p. 196;

(10) [(10) p.251] Cf. commentary Art. 12, para. 2, supra, pp. 167-169;

(11) [(11) p.251] On this subject, see commentary Art. 13, paragraph 2 of which also lists certain acts which should not be considered as being harmful to the enemy, even though they might be rather equivocal; supra, pp. 176-180;