Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
Treaties and Documents
Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries
Historical Treaties and Documents
Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977.
Protection of children
[p.897] Article 77
-- Protection of children
[p.898] 3173 The situation of children in time of armed conflict is covered by several articles in the fourth Convention. Thus Article 14
concerning safety zones, indicates that such zones may protect in
particular children under fifteen. Children are also mentioned in
, which provides for the evacuation of civilians from
besieged areas. Article 23
, which deals with the free passage of
relief consignments intended for the weakest categories of the
population, explicitly refers to children under fifteen among the
potential beneficiaries. Article 24
, which has a similar scope to the
article under consideration here, is entirely devoted to children,
particularly children under fifteen who are orphaned or who are
separated from their families as a result of the war, and to the
identification of children under twelve. In Article 38
, which applies
to protected persons in the national territory of belligerents,
children under fifteen are included amongst those persons who should
enjoy preferential treatment to the same extent as nationals of the
State concerned. Article 50
deals with children in occupied
territories and to the institutions devoted to their care. Still in
occupied territory, Article 51
prohibits compelling children under
eighteen years of age to work, and Article 68
the death penalty on persons under eighteen years of age. Moreover,
this last provision, from which no derogation is possible, has been
adopted in the International Covenant of 1966 on Civil and Political
Rights (Article 6, paragraph 5).
3174 When it presented the draft article, (1) the ICRC's specific purpose was to extend [p.899] to all children in territories of
States involved in a conflict, some of the provisions of the fourth
Convention which apply in occupied territories (Article 50
) and to
prohibit the participation of children in armed conflict. It will be
shown below that by and large the Diplomatic Conference agreed with
3175 The Working Group of Committee III discussed this article for more than a week; it raised some delicate problems and three
amendments had to be examined. (2) Finally the Working Group achieved
a compromise which was adopted by consensus in Committee III and then
by the Conference itself, and which has become the present article.
3176 In view of its character, this article serves as a development of both the fourth Convention and of other rules of international law
which govern the protection of fundamental human rights in time of
armed conflict, particularly the International Covenant of 1966 on
Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of the
Child, adopted unanimously in 1959 by the United Nations General
Assembly. At the present time a Draft Convention on the Rights of the
Child is under discussion in the United Nations.
3177 This article is not subject to any restrictions as regards its scope of application; it therefore applies to all children who are in
the territory of States at war, whether or not they are affected by
3178 The word "children" is not clarified in any way, and this omission is intentional. The Rapporteur said: "It should also be
noted that the Committee decided not to place specific age limits in
paragraphs 1 and 4 and that there is no precise definition of the
term "children"." (3)
3179 The term "child" does not have a generally accepted definition. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary the term "child" means a
young human being who has not reached the age of discretion, i.e.,
the age at which one is fit to manage one's own affairs (7th edition,
1982). According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1970) a child is a
human being up to the age of puberty. The French Dictionary Robert
indicates that it means a human being from birth up to the age of
thirteen; this is followed by adolescence. (4) The age of puberty
varies, depending on climate, race and the individual. However, the
limit of fifteen years of age, which is given many times in the
fourth Convention and is also given in paragraphs 2 and 3 of this
article, seems to provide a reasonable basis for a definition.
Moreover, the article itself in paragraphs 2 and 5 uses the word
"persons" in referring to a limit of eighteen years. This does not
prevent the fact that some countries have adopted a lower or higher
age than fifteen years, but there is no doubt that all human beings
under fifteen should, within the meaning of the Fourth Convention and
[p.900] this Protocol, be considered and treated as children. The age
of fifteen most often corresponds to such development of the human
faculties that special measures are no longer required to the same
degree. However, some flexibility is appropriate, for there are
individuals who remain children, both physically and mentally, after
the age of fifteen. Furthermore, this age of fifteen has been adopted
in other international instruments. Thus, for example, in a
recommendation of 1965 relating to the minimum age for marriage
(Resolution 2018 (XX)) the United Nations General Assembly requested
States to determine a minimum age for marriage and specified that
that age should in no case be under fifteen years.
3180 The meaning of the provision under consideration here is sufficiently clear: at most we should add that according to the
Rapporteur the last words, "or for any other reason", refer to
retarded children, or in modern terminology, those who are physically
or mentally handicapped.
3181 The first sentence is very similar to paragraph 1 of Article 76
' (Protection of women). ' Like women, children are entitled to
special respect and must be protected against any form of indecent
assault. This is a welcome supplement to Article 27
of the fourth
Convention, as experience has shown that children, even the very
youngest children, are not immune from sexual assault.
3182 The second sentence demands that Parties to the conflict should provide children with the care and aid they require. This may seem
self-evident, but it is just as well to state it in black and white.
3183 Recent conflicts have all too often shown the harrowing spectacle of boys, who have barely left childhood behind them, brandishing
rifles and machine-guns and ready to shoot indiscriminately at
anything that moves. Participation of children and adolescents in
combat is an inhumane practice and the ICRC considered that it should
come to an end. It entails mortal danger for the children themselves,
but also for the many people who are exposed to their erratic.
3184 Nevertheless, the ICRC proposals encountered some opposition, as on this point governments did not wish to undertake unconditional
obligations. In fact, the ICRC had suggested that the Parties to the
conflict should "take all necessary measures", which became in the
final text, "take all feasible measures". This formula already exists
in other articles, particularly Article 76
' (Protection of women), '
and we refer to the commentary thereon. (5) Although the obligation
to refrain from recruiting children under fifteen remains, the one of
refusing their voluntary enrolment is no longer explicitly mentioned.
In fact, according to the Rapporteur, Committee III noted that
sometimes, especially in occupied territories and in wars of national
liberation, it would not be realistic to totally prohibit voluntary
participation of children under fifteen. (6)
[p.901] 3185 It is possible to understand the point of view adopted by the Diplomatic Conference without fully agreeing with it. It is true that
there is no law on military organization anywhere that provides for
the recruitment of persons under fifteen, but children of that age
have certainly participated in hostilities voluntarily in extreme
circumstances, and have sometimes performed acts of heroism, possibly
without always being aware of the reasons for the conflict. It is
difficult to moderate their enthusiasm and their will to fight.
Military and civil authorities will find valid reasons in this
provision for refusing the voluntary enrolment of minors under the
age of fifteen, and for exhorting them to continue their studies and
their education. However, if despite this, such "under fifteens" are
intent on participating in hostilities -- a case covered by paragraph
3 -- the authorities employing or commanding them should be conscious
of the heavy responsibility they are assuming and should remember
that they are dealing with persons who are not yet sufficiently
mature, or even have the necessary discernment of discrimination.
Thus they should give them the appropriate instruction on handling
weapons, the conduct of combatants and respect for the laws and
customs of war.
3186 Similarly, even though the authorities may not succeed in preventing young persons from taking part in hostilities, they should
at least provide them with uniforms, identity tags indicating their
status as minors or, failing these, with distinguishing signs such
as, for example, an armlet or a tunic or any other sign showing that
the individual wearing it is a combatant.
3187 The text refers to taking a ' direct ' part in hostilities. (7) The ICRC proposal did not include this word. Can this lead to the
conclusion that indirect acts of participation are not covered?
Examples would include, in particular, gathering and transmission of
military information, transportation of arms and munitions, provision
of supplies etc. The intention of the drafters of the article was
clearly to keep children under fifteen outside armed conflict, and
consequently they should not be required to perform such services; if
it does happen that children under fifteen spontaneously or on
request perform such acts, precautions should at least be taken; for
example, in the case of capture by the enemy, they should not be
considered as spies, saboteurs or illegal combatants and treated as
such. In addition, appropriate instruction is again essential.
3188 The second sentence of the paragraph is the result of a compromise; in fact, in an amendment one delegation had proposed that
the limit on non-recruitment should be raised from fifteen to
eighteen years. (8) The majority was opposed to extending the
prohibition of recruitment beyond fifteen years, but in order to take
this proposal into account it was provided that in the case of
recruitment of persons between fifteen and eighteen, priority should
be given to the oldest.
3189 As we see, this provision directly concerns the composition of the armed forces; it is therefore related to Articles 43
forces), ' 44
' (Combatants and prisoners of war), ' 45
of persons who have taken part in hostilities) ' of the present
[p.902] Protocol, to Articles 51
of the fourth Convention,
and to Article 23
of the Hague Regulations of 1907.
3190 Up to now there have been no rules in this field, and this article will certainly be very useful, even if it is not mandatory in
3191 Finally it should be noted that this provision is primarily concerned with the nationals of the recruitment State, though without
excluding nationals of other States. In other words, this article
undoubtedly applies to that State's own nationals, and to some extent
protects them from their own authorities. It is conceivable on the
basis of this article that a father might oppose the recruitment of
his son under fifteen years of age, or request that in the event of
his son's voluntary enrolment, such enrolment should not be accepted.
3192 One does not often see an international treaty laying down rules governing the situation which would arise if an article of the same
treaty were violated. This paragraph is an example of such case. It
is intended to cover the case where, despite the prohibitions
contained in the first two paragraphs, "under fifteens" were to
participate in hostilities. However, the text itself emphasizes the
"exceptional" character of such cases.
3193 As we have already said, it is not very likely that such young persons would be recruited on the basis of a law or decree. It is
more likely that they would join up as a result of spontaneous
actions by individuals or groups such as military academies,
volunteer corps or patriotic societies. Spontaneous uprisings to
resist an invader (levée en masse) are also quite likely.
3194 We also mentioned above the precautionary measures which should be taken by the authorities in such an extreme case, particularly
ensuring that such young persons are provided with distinguishing
signs displaying their combatant status. A child identified in this
way will obviously be treated as a prisoner of war if he is captured.
In fact, there is no age-limit for the right to such treatment.
Theoretically prisoners of war may be very young or very old.
However, according to Article 16
of the Third Convention, age is a
factor which justifies privileged treatment. On many occasions the
ICRC has intervened in favour of very young prisoners of war,
requesting privileged treatment for them during captivity and
priority during repatriation. (9) Even when they are prisoners of
war, "under fifteens" will continue to have the benefit of the
provisions of this article, particularly paragraphs 1, 4 and 5. The
death penalty cannot be pronounced on them, and they must be interned
in quarters separate from those of adults.
3195 If a child under fifteen years of age participates in hostilities under such conditions that he does not have the right to
prisoner-of-war status, he may fall under the fourth Convention if he
is a protected person within the meaning of [p.903] that Convention.
Finally, if he does not have the right to prisoner-of-war treatment,
and he is not a protected person either, he is entitled, according to
' (Protection of persons who have taken part in
hostilities), ' paragraph 3, to the protection of Article 75
' (Fundamental guarantees), ' which is referred to in paragraph 4 of
. That provision is important, especially with regard to
judicial guarantees, as these are only available under the fourth
Convention for protected persons in occupied territory.
3196 Finally, all children who are in the situation just referred to can rely on the provisions of Article 77
, even if they are prisoners
of war or protected persons under the fourth Convention.
3197 As in paragraph 1 -- we refer to the commentary thereon -- no age-limit is laid down, and the word "children" is not defined.
However, it is reasonable to assume that children under fifteen years
of age must be detained in quarters separate from those of adults,
except, obviously where families are accommodated as family units.
3198 The situation is less clear with regard to young people between sixteen and eighteen years old. In this respect the Rapporteur of
Committee III made the following remark: "Whether persons of sixteen,
seventeen or eighteen years of age would thus have to be retained
separately from adults, is left to national law, traditions, and the
decision of the Parties to a conflict." (10) Like him, we feel that
for this last category it is appropriate to act in accordance with
the customs and practices followed in the places of detention of the
countries concerned. If there is any uncertainty, the interests of
the young people should prevail.
3199 To some extent this question is related to the age of criminal responsibility. In some countries no penal sanction may be inflicted
on individuals who have not reached a minimum age, which may vary
from country to country. In many States, even if the age of criminal
responsibility is below the general age of majority, youth
constitutes a mitigating factor, and penalties are reduced. Very
often offences committed by young people are submitted to juvenile
courts, and the penalties are often educational or rehabilitation
measures to be served in special establishments. In such cases the
separation required by this paragraph is of course automatically
3200 Lodging members of the same family who are being detained in the same quarters is already laid down in Article 82
of the fourth
3201 This is probably the most important paragraph, as the provision is not subject to any restriction; it contains its own definition in
terms which are unequivocal. [p.904] In territories at war no person
under the age of eighteen years may be executed for an offence
related to the armed conflict.
3202 In this field the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 paved the way in Article 68
, paragraph 4, which provides that, in any case, the
death penalty may not be pronounced by the courts of the Occupying
Power on a protected person who is under eighteen years of age. The
1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights followed
this example, and Article 6 provides that the death sentence cannot
be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of
age. On the other hand, the European Convention (1950) does not
contain any provision in this respect. Article 4 of the American
Convention (1969) prohibits the death penalty for persons under
eighteen years of age or over seventy. To sum up, the present
provision fills gaps which still existed, and with regard to time of
armed conflict and offences related to conflicts, it can be said that
the death penalty for persons under eighteen years of age is ruled
3203 It should be noted that the provision does not use the word "children", but the more general term "persons". The ICRC draft
provided that the death penalty should not be "pronounced", and the
Working Group had accepted that text. But one delegate argued that
the legislation of his country did not permit a prohibition on the
death penalty being pronounced, though a prohibition of its execution
could be accepted. Committee III and the Conference itself accepted
this objection and the final text takes it into account.
3204 It is to be hoped that this provision will not be abused, especially by urging young people under eighteen to perform highly
perfidious or unscrupulous acts which would not carry the death
penalty for their perpetrator because of his youth. Such practices
could have damaging consequences if they occurred frequently and the
authorities responsible might give up attempting to apprehend the
perpetrators of such acts, seeking rather to eliminate them. The
heavy responsibility upon those who ordered adolescents to commit
such acts or tolerated them, should be underlined, for they
jeopardize the safety of all young people. In addition, it should be
recalled that they would have to account for their acts before the
3205 As regards the words "offence related to the armed conflict", we have already seen with regard to Article 75
guarantees), ' paragraphs 3 and 4, and Article 76
' (Protection of
women), ' paragraphs 2 and 3, what is meant by this expression, which
in general does not cover ordinary criminal offences. In addition, we
would refer to the commentary on the above-mentioned provisions (p.
357 and p. 893 supra).
3206 The death penalty is prohibited or restricted in a number of provisions of the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols,
and the following summary can be made in this respect:
1) A general rule applicable to all civilian or military persons in the territory of the Parties to the conflict prohibits the
execution of the death penalty for penal offences related to the
armed conflict on persons under eighteen years of age at the time
the offence was committed (Protocol I, Article 77
corresponding rule applicable in non-international conflicts
(Protocol II, [p.905] Article 6
-- ' Penal prosecutions) '
prohibits the pronouncement of the death penalty in like
2) A general rule applicable to women prohibits the execution of the death penalty on pregnant women and mothers having dependent
infants, for offences related to the conflict (Protocol I,
-- ' Protection of women '). The same rule applies in
internal conflicts (Protocol II, Article 6
-- ' Penal
3) Prisoners of war are subject to the legislation of the Detaining Power; they must be informed of offences carrying the death
penalty under this legislation; no new offence may be added to
that list without the concurrence of the Power on which they
depend. Various precautions are laid down in favour of prisoners
of war accused of offences carrying the death penalty, and this
penalty may not be executed until at least six months after the
final judgment (Third Convention, Articles 100
4) In occupied territories the death penalty can only be pronounced by courts of the Occupying Power against protected persons for a
limited number of duly enumerated offences (Fourth Convention,
, paragraph 2). Furthermore, various precautions must
be observed, and in the case of conviction, the execution may not
take place until after a period of at least six months (Fourth
Convention, Article 75
). Finally, the fourth Convention (Article
, paragraph 4), prohibits the pronouncement (and therefore,
like the article under consideration here, the execution) of the
death penalty on protected persons under eighteen years of age at
the time of the offence.
3207 As we have seen, some very important restrictions have been adopted on the pronouncement and execution of the death penalty; at
any rate, there is a general tendency throughout the world to abolish
this penalty, and this tendency is reflected in the 1949 Conventions,
as well as in the present Protocol.
3208 It is worthy of note that one delegate, without objecting to the article as it was adopted, would have wished to add a sixth paragraph
prohibiting any penal prosecution and conviction of children too
young at the time of the offence to understand the consequences of
their actions. According to the Rapporteur, Committee III agreed
that, following a general principle of penal law, a person cannot be
convicted of a criminal act if he was not able to understand the
consequences of that act at the time he committed it. To some extent
this problem is related to the age of criminal responsibility,
discussed above with regard to paragraph 3. The Committee therefore
decided to leave this question to national legislation.
' C.P./J.P. '
(1) [(1) p.898] "' Article 65 -- Protection of children; '
1. Children shall be the object of privileged treatment. The Parties to the conflict shall provide them with
the care and aid their age and situation require.
Children shall be protected against any form of
2. The Parties to the conflict shall take all necessary measures in order that children aged under fifteen
years shall not take part in hostilities and, in
particular, they shall refrain from recruiting them
in their armed forces or accepting their voluntary
3. The death penalty for an offence related to a situation referred to in Article 2 common to the
Conventions shall not be pronounced on persons who
were under eighteen years at the time the offence was
(2) [(2) p.899] See O.R. III, pp. 300-301, CDDH/III/304, CDDH/III/324 and Corr.1 and CDDH/III/325;
(3) [(3) p.899] O.R. XV, p. 465, CDDH/407/Rev.1, para. 63;
(4) [(4) p.899] ' Oxford English Dictionary, ' 1970, Vol. II, p. 341: "A young person of either sex below the age of
puberty ; P. Robert, ' Dictionnaire alphahetique et
analogique de la langue française, ' Paris, 1971, vol. 2,
(5) [(5) p.900] For the general meaning of the expression, cf. commentary Arts. 57-58, supra, pp. 681 and 692;
(6) [(6) p.900] O.R. XV, p. 465, CDDH/407/Rev.1, para. 63;
(7) [(7) p.901] Art. 43, para. 2, attributes the right to participate ' directly ' in hostilities to members of the
armed forces and to them alone. We refer to the commentary
on this paragraph, supra, p. 514;
(8) [(8) p.901] Cf. O.R. III, p. 301, CDDH/III/325;
(9) [(9) p.902] See ' Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its Activities during the Second World
War (September I, 1939 -- June 30, 1947) ', Vol. I, 1948,
(10) [(10) p.903] O.R. XV, p. 465, CDDH/407/Rev.1, para. 63;