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Commentary of 1958 

[p.120] GENERAL

1. ' Terminology '

The terminology in normal use should be defined. A distinction is made between:

A. ' Hospital zones and localities, ' generally of a permanent character, established outside the combat zone in order to shelter military or civilian wounded and sick from long-range weapons, especially aerial bombardment (1).

B. ' Safety zones and localities, ' generally of a permanent character, established outside the combat zone in order to shelter certain categories of the civilian population, which, owing to their weakness, require special protection (children, old people, expectant mothers, etc.) from long-range weapons, especially aerial bombardment (2).

C. ' Hospital and safety zones and localities, ' which are a combination of A and B above;

D. ' Neutralized zones, ' generally of a temporary character, established in the actual combat zone to protect both combatant and noncombatant wounded and sick, as well as all members of the civilian population who are in the area and not taking part in the hostilities, from military operations in the neighbourhood.
This is the terminology used in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, although they do not contain any formal definition. ' Locality ' should [p.121] be taken to mean a specific place of limited area, generally containing buildings. The term ' zone ' is used to describe a relatively large area of land and may include one or more localities.
Article 14 relates to hospital and safety zones and localities intended for civilian wounded and sick and for certain categories of the civilian population. The hospital zones and localities set aside for wounded and sick members of the armed forces are dealt with in Article 23 of the First Geneva Convention of 1949 (3). Neutralized zones are dealt with in Article 15 of the Convention we are studying (4).
Although it was necessary to define the meaning of the various terms employed, it should be pointed out that in practice, and even in theory, the problem of providing places of refuge (5) is capable of solution by several combinations of means. The system described in the Geneva Conventions provides all the flexibility required in this respect. A hospital locality, for instance, could be established which sheltered both wounded soldiers and sick civilians. In the same way, a safety zone might shelter military or civilian wounded and sick in addition to certain categories of the civilian population.

2. ' Historical background '

Since hospital and safety zones and localities were first incorporated in positive law in 1949, it will be advisable to dwell at some length on the origin of the problem and its history (6). In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, suggested that certain towns should be declared neutral and the wounded members of the armed forces collected there. That was the first time the idea of hospital localities was put forward. The proposal was not followed up owing to the rapid development of military events.
During the Paris Commune of 1871, Dunant tried, once more in vain, to set up places of refuge for the civilian population in Paris, That was the first time the idea of having safety zones arose.
[p.122] In 1929, Surgeon-General Georges Saint-Paul drew up a plan for setting aside places of refuge to shelter not only the wounded and sick of the armed forces, but also sick civilians and certain other categories of civilians whose weakness entitles them to be placed on the same footing as the sick (children, old people, etc.). In Paris, in 1931, General Saint-Paul founded the ' Association internationale des Lieux de Genève ' (International Association for the Lieux de Genève), for the purpose of giving publicity to the plan and encouraging its realization (7).
In 1934, a commission of medical and legal experts, meeting in Monaco on the recommendation of the International Congress of Military Medicine and Pharmacy, drew up a Draft Convention dealing with respect for human life in wartime. This document, which is known as the Monaco Draft, contained important provisions concerning hospital localities and safety zones. The Belgian Government which had at first contemplated holding a Diplomatic Conference to adopt the draft, was later obliged to abandon its intention. The Monaco texts were then handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In 1936, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had also been studying the question, convened a Commission of Experts nominated by the National Red Cross Societies and by the Standing Committee of the Congresses on Military Medicine and Pharmacy. The Commission considered that some progress might be made, at least so far as hospital zones were concerned, but pointed out that the assistance of military experts would be essential to carry the work to a successful conclusion. The International Committee of the Red Cross then drew up a preliminary draft Convention, and proposed that a commission of military experts and experts in international law should be convened. In spite of repeated representations, the Commission did not meet until October 1938, on the recommendation of the XVIth International Red Cross Conference.
On the basis of all the documents then existing, the commission drew up a Draft Convention (known as the 1938 Draft) for the Creation of Hospital Localities and Zones in Wartime. This draft, together with a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, was communicated to all States by the Swiss Government. It was intended to serve as a basis for the work of the Diplomatic Conference which it was proposed to hold at the beginning of 1940 to revise and extend the Geneva Conventions. The Conference, however, was postponed owing to the outbreak of war.
[p.123] During the Second World War, the International Committee of the Red Cross proposed on several occasions that the belligerent Powers should conclude agreements for the setting up of hospital and safety zones (8). The 1938 Draft was to have provided the basis for these agreements. It would have been extended by analogy to safety zones for certain categories of the civilian population. The fact that neutralized zones had been successfully established at Madrid, in 1936, and at Shanghai, in 1937, was an encouraging precedent. But although a number of States sent replies which were favourable in principle, none of them acted on these proposals, practical and precise though they were.
Apart from negotiations of a general nature, the International Committee of the Red Cross was informed, during that period, of a certain number of proposals, more or less private in character, to set up hospital or safety zones (e.g. at Siena, Bologna, Imola, Constance, Tromsö and Shanghai). No official action followed, however, as the proposals did not come from belligerent Governments, which continued to treat the whole question with great reserve.
The International Committee took the 1938 Draft relating to hospital localities and zones as the basis for the preparatory work it undertook in 1945 in connection with the revision and extension of the Geneva Conventions, extending it to cover certain categories of civilians.
The 1947 Conference of Government Experts agreed to the possibility of providing in the Geneva Conventions for the establishment of places of refuge whose recognition by the enemy would depend upon the conclusion of special agreements.
About the same time, i.e. in 1948, the International Committee of the Red Cross had been able to establish and administer places of refuge in Jerusalem. This experience encouraged it to propose, for inclusion in the Convention, a provision which would enable Powers to set up safety zones of a new type. The zones in Jerusalem, like those in Madrid and Shanghai, were different from the earlier theoretical idea of what such zones should be. In theory, the first tendency had been to establish permanent zones behind the front, in order to shelter certain categories of the civilian population against long-range weapons, especially bomber aircraft. In actual practice, however, it was always found necessary to establish temporary places of refuge in the actual combat area, in order to provide shelter for the whole of the local population, who were in danger as a result of the military operations in the vicinity.
[p.124] The International Committee of the Red Cross accordingly pre-prepared a draft Article providing for the establishment of places of refuge of the type just described, open without distinction to the wounded and sick and to all non-combatants, and known as "neutralized zones".
The various Articles mentioned, together with the Draft Agreement, were approved, with no change of any importance, by the XVIIth International Red Cross Conference, and later by the Diplomatic Conference of 1949. The latter separated the Draft Agreement, which had previously been common to the First and Fourth Conventions, into two distinct documents, one instituting hospital zones for wounded and sick members of the armed forces, and the other hospital zones for wounded and sick civilians and safety zones for certain categories of the population.


1. ' Time of establishment '

A. ' Date. ' -- Hospital and safety zones and localities may be set up either in case of war or in peacetime. They may be actually prepared in peacetime, but they are not, as a rule, recognized by the enemy until the outbreak of a conflict. The establishment of the zones remains a purely unilateral measure and in no way binds the adverse Party until such time as it contracts obligations under the special agreement referred to in paragraph 2.
The Convention expressly mentions the fact that the zones may be established in time of peace, despite the fact that States are free to organize them when they please; this is to show the importance attached to preparatory measures of this sort. The many problems connected with the setting up and administration of a refuge zone cannot be solved during the first days of a war, when government services will be overburdened by numerous other tasks. It is, on the contrary, desirable that such questions should be studied in detail before hostilities break out.

B. ' Method. ' -- Both psychological and physical obstacles may be encountered to setting up hospital and safety zones and localities in peacetime. Among the physical obstacles may be mentioned the real difficulty of foreseeing the strategical situation in which a State will find itself in case of war; there is nothing to prevent it, however, establishing a number of zones, of which only some will be utilized, the choice depending upon events.
[p.125] There is no express obligation to set up hospital and safety zones and localities, since Article 14 is only optional in character. The authors of the Convention wished, however, to draw attention to the importance of such zones from a humanitarian point of view, and to recommend their adoption in practice. The responsible authorities in each country are therefore urged to make every effort to implement Article 14.
For this purpose they may base themselves in peacetime on the rules contained in the Draft Agreement annexed to the Convention. It is, indeed, important that the zones should be established on a basis which has already been approved in principle at the Diplomatic Conference. In all probability such zones will be accepted once and for all by the adverse Party, whereas it might not recognize zones established on some other basis.
The Convention provides that the belligerents may establish zones not only in their own territory but also in territory they occupy. This provision should be compared with Article 50, paragraph 5 , which considers the situation from the opposite point of view -- that is to say in cases where the occupied State has already adopted preferential measures, such as the creation of refuge zones for certain categories of the civilian population. In such cases the Occupying Power should endeavour not to hinder those measures (9).

2. ' Persons sheltered '

The categories of persons who may find shelter in the zones are as follows: wounded, sick, crippled (10) and aged persons, children under fifteen, expectant mothers and mothers of children under seven.
As has already been pointed out, the provisions relating to hospital and safety zones in the First and Fourth Geneva Conventions are sufficiently flexible to make various combinations possible. There is, for instance, no reason why a hospital zone should not combine the two types and provide shelter for both soldiers and civilians in need of treatment, since once a soldier is wounded or sick, he may be said to be no longer a combatant on either side, but simply a suffering, inoffensive human being. Safety zones or localities, reserved solely [p.126] for the categories of civilians enumerated in the Convention, may be set up independently of hospital zones to which we have just referred. Or again, -- and this is the most comprehensive combination -- zones which are at one and the same time hospital and safety zones might be set up, to shelter both civilian and military wounded and sick, as well as certain categories of the civilian population. This is, in fact, the solution which the Article we are discussing makes possible.
These various categories among the civilian population are based on a very simple criterion: they are persons who are taking no part in the hostilities and whose weakness makes them incapable of contributing to the war potential of their country; they thus appear to be particularly deserving of protection. Experience shows that any separation into categories necessarily includes an arbitrary element. Certain definite categories -- children under fifteen and mothers of children under seven -- were nevertheless chosen because the Conference considered that they were appropriate, reasonable and generally in accord with the requirements of the physical and mental development of children. No limit was fixed for "aged persons". Should this expression be taken to mean those over 65, as stipulated in the Stockholm Draft? The Conference refrained from naming a definite age, preferring to leave the point to the discretion of Governments. 65 seems, however, to be a reasonable age limit. It is often the age of retirement, and it is also the age at which
civilian internees have usually been released from internment by belligerent Powers.
The list of beneficiaries as defined in the first paragraph of the Article should be extended to include the personnel entrusted with the organization, administration and supervision of the zones and with the care of the persons therein assembled (11).
It will also be necessary to take into consideration members of the population who reside permanently inside the zones and have been given the right to stay there (12).
The right of admission to a refuge zone is independent of the race, nationality, religion, political beliefs and social status of the persons concerned. This follows categorically from the principle of non-discrimination proclaimed in Article 13 . Expectant mothers of enemy nationality would thus have the same right to shelter in a refuge zone as expectant mothers who are nationals of the State concerned (13).

[p.127] 3. ' Object '

The object of Article 14 is to ' protect ' certain categories of the civilian population ' from the effects of war '.
The general wording of the above formula is intentional. The protection is clearly intended to be first and foremost against the dangers which may arise from aerial bombardments, long-range artillery fire and guided missiles, but dangers resulting from fighting close at hand are, of course, also included.
The Article is, moreover, intended to cover the indirect effects of war, such as shortage of food, clothing and medical supplies, breakdown of health services, etc. The concentration of the protected persons in an area which ha8 been specially prepared and equipped for the purpose, will make it easier to give them the care and treatment which their condition requires.
Finally, attention should perhaps be drawn again to the fact that the establishment of hospital and safety zones may in no case be construed as allowing a reduction in the protection to which not only the wounded, sick, disabled and aged persons, etc., but the whole civilian population outside such zones, are entitled, under the general rules of international law both customary and embodied in treaties and conventions. Indeed protection is not accorded under Article 14 to the persons listed, but to the hospital and safety zones and localities as such. The persons themselves are entitled to protection independently of the refuge zones, which are merely a means of providing such protection.


The zones will not, strictly speaking, have any legal existence, or enjoy protection under the Convention, until such time as they have been recognized by the adverse Party.
This will entail the conclusion of an agreement between the Power which has established zones in its territory and the Powers with which it is at war. It is only an agreement of this kind, concluded, as a general rule, after the outbreak of hostilities, which gives legal form to the obligation on States which have accorded recognition to zones to respect those zones.
An agreement recognizing the zones is thus a sine qua non of their legal existence from the international point of view. It should contain all the provisions, particularly in regard to control procedure, required to prevent disputes arising later in regard to its interpretation.
[p.128] In order to encourage the establishment of hospital and safety zones and to facilitate negotiations, the Diplomatic Conference decided to annex to the Convention a Draft Agreement which States could bring into force with whatever modifications they considered necessary. The Draft Agreement is therefore only in the nature of a suggestion or example. Nevertheless, the fact that it was carefully drawn up by experts and was adopted by the Plenipotentiaries of 1949, gives it definite value. It has been seen above how desirable it is that the principles contained in it should be used as a basis for the establishment of any hospital or safety zone (14). Comments on the Draft Agreement are to be found at the end of this volume.


The establishment and notification of hospital and safety zones, the conclusion of the agreement mentioned above, and, above all, the arrangements for supervision, all demand the existence in wartime of a neutral acting as intermediary between the belligerents.
In accordance with the general plan adopted in the Geneva Conventions, it was natural to think in this connection of the Protecting Powers and of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which are ' invited ' by the Convention itself to lend their good offices in this matter. That means that, when they think it advisable, they may themselves take the initiative and put forward proposals to Governments, without waiting to be asked to do so.

Notes: (1) [(1) p.120] The expression "hospital towns" has been
dropped by the experts since 1938;

(2) [(2) p.120] The Association internationale des Lieux de
Genève, which will be referred to later, adopted the
terms "Lieux de Genève" (Geneva localities) or "zones
blanches" (white zones);

(3) [(1) p.121] See commentary on Article 23 in ' The Geneva
Conventions of 12 August 1949: I. Geneva Convention for
the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick
in Armed Forces in the Field, ' Geneva, 1952, pp. 206-216;

(4) [(2) p.121] See below, p. 128 ff.;

(5) [(3) p.121] The common expression "places of refuge" may
be used to denote any piece of territory so laid out as to
afford shelter to certain categories of persons. It may
therefore cover hospital zones and localities, safety
zones and neutralized zones;

(6) [(4) p.121] This survey is nevertheless very brief.
Further details may be obtained from the pamphlet entitled
' Hospital Localities and Safety Zones, ' published by the
International Committee of the Red Cross in 1951;

(7) [(1) p.122] The headquarters of the Association is now in

(8) [(1) p.123] See in particular the ' Memorandum sent to all
the belligerent Governments ' by the International
Committee of the Red Cross on March 15, 1944;

(9) [(1) p.125] See Article 12 of the ' Draft Agreement '
annexed to the Convention below, p. 639;

(10) [(2) p.125] The English text of the Convention makes no
mention of cripples (les infirmes), who are however
referred to in the French text. Both versions of the
Convention being equally authentic, crippled or disabled
persons must clearly be included among those protected
under Article 14. -- TRANSLATOR;

(11) [(1) p.126] ' Draft Agreement, ' Article 1, para. 1; see
p. 627.;

(12) [(2) p.126] ' Draft Agreement, ' Article 1, para. 2; see
p. 627;

(13) [(3) p.126] See also Article 38 (5), below, p. 248;

(14) [(1) p.128] Article 7 of the ' Draft Agreement ' provides,
however for the possibility of zones being recognized in
time of peace. See below, p. 634;