Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
  • Print page
Commentary of 2017 
Article 41 : Use of the emblem
Text of the provision*
(1) Under the direction of the competent military authority, the emblem of the red cross on a white ground shall be displayed on the flags, armlets and on all equipment employed in the Medical Service.
(2) Nevertheless, in the case of countries which already use as emblem, in place of the red cross, the red crescent or the red lion and sun on a white ground, these emblems are also recognized by the terms of the present Convention.
* Paragraph numbers have been added for ease of reference.
Reservations or declarations
Bangladesh: Declaration made on 20 December 1988.[1] Islamic Republic of Iran: Declaration made on 4 September 1980 and communication made on 12 September 2000.[2] Israel: Reservation made on signature on 8 December 1949 and maintained on ratification.[3]

A. Introduction
2669  The need for a uniform distinctive sign to identify the medical service of the armed forces and to provide humanitarian protection is not confined to land warfare. Article 41, which combines Articles 39 and 38(2) of the First Convention, extends and confirms the application of the distinctive emblems to those situations to which the Second Convention applies.[4]
2670  In the same manner as Article 39 of the First Convention, Article 41 sets out those items and equipment of the medical service of the armed forces upon which the distinctive emblem should be placed. These include, in particular, flags and armlets, such items being recognized as key examples of the use of the emblem as a protective device. While Article 41 also refers to ‘all’ equipment of the medical service, in practice it is recognized that not all such equipment will require the emblem to be displayed. In any event, the placing of a distinctive emblem on equipment, transports and personnel of the medical service is under the control of the competent military authority.[5]
2671  The second paragraph of Article 41 establishes the emblems of the red crescent and of the red lion and sun as alternative signs to the red cross emblem for those countries already using either of these two emblems at the time the Conventions were adopted. For those countries, the red crescent emblem and the red lion and sun emblem enjoy equal status under the Conventions.[6] The intention was that new States Parties would use the red cross emblem, and that the latter two emblems would remain limited exceptions. However, in practice, States adopted the emblem most suitable for their national circumstances. Today, all of the distinctive emblems enjoy equal status.[7]
2672  For further details, see the commentaries on Articles 38 and 39 of the First Convention.
Back to top
B. Historical background
2673  Shortly after the 1864 Geneva Convention was adopted, the Additional Articles relating to the Condition of the Wounded in War were agreed upon in 1868 to extend some of the Convention’s principles and provisions to naval forces. Although these Additional Articles never entered into force, they demonstrated in part the need for and utility of the distinctive sign of the red cross on a white ground to identify vessels engaged in assisting the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, including hospital ships.[8] The use of such an emblem was included in the later Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, which adapted the principles of the 1864 Geneva Convention to maritime warfare.[9]
2674  The content of Article 41 did not appear in the 1907 Hague Convention (X), which the Second Convention revised and replaced. Consequently, this text was adopted for the first time in 1949. Like Article 38 of the First Convention, it is an important article of general application. However, this general purpose is implied rather than made explicit in the text of the article. Therefore, it must be read with reference to various other articles of the Second Convention.
Back to top
C. Discussion
2675  Article 41 extends the provisions of Article 39 and Article 38(2) of the First Convention to States’ maritime operations in times of armed conflict. It requires the display of one of the distinctive emblems on relevant items and equipment employed by the medical services of armed forces at sea. While such display is intended to facilitate the identification of protected persons and objects under international humanitarian law, the distinctive emblems do not in themselves confer such protection.
2676  The following individuals, transports and establishments are entitled to display the distinctive emblem under the present Convention:
(a) military hospital ships (Articles 22 and 43);
(b) hospital ships utilized by National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, by officially recognized relief societies or by private persons which have received an official commission from the Party to the conflict on which they depend (Articles 24 and 43);
(c) hospital ships utilized by National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, by officially recognized relief societies or by private persons of neutral countries which have been authorized by their own government and by one of the Parties to the conflict (Articles 25 and 43);
(d) lifeboats of hospital ships, coastal rescue craft and lifeboats, and small craft used by the medical service (Articles 27 and 43);
(e) fixed coastal installations used by coastal rescue craft (Article 27(2); see also the commentary on Article 43, section E.2);
(f) sick-bays of warships and their equipment (Article 28);
(g) the medical, religious and hospital personnel of hospital ships and their crews (Articles 36 and 42);
(h) the medical, religious and hospital personnel of other ships (Articles 37 and 42);
(i) medical equipment (Article 41); and
(j) medical aircraft (Article 39).
2677  In addition, according to Article 44(3) of the First Convention, the international Red Cross organizations are permitted to use the red cross emblem.[10] The ICRC worked with the then League of Red Cross Societies[11] to charter relief supplies for victims of the Second World War on ships marked with the red cross emblem. Since 1949, the ICRC has, on occasion, continued to use appropriately marked vessels to provide assistance to those affected by situations of armed conflict.
2678  Nowadays, very few armed forces operate fully dedicated hospital ships. This is perhaps understandable, given that such vessels require considerable resources to operate and maintain, and that most medical evacuations and emergency treatment during times of armed conflict are carried out using land transports and aircraft.[12] The People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation and the United States of America all deploy military hospital ships, each displaying the red cross emblem, as adopted by those countries. Currently, there is no military hospital ship that displays the red crescent or red crystal emblem.[13]
2679  The exact manner in which relevant transports, personnel and equipment should be marked with the distinctive emblem is set out in Articles 42 and 43 of the present Convention.
Back to top
Select bibliography
Bouvier, Antoine, ‘Humanitarian Protection and Armed Conflicts at Sea: Means and Methods of Identifying Protected Craft’, Syracuse Journal of International Law and Commerce, Vol. 14, 1988, pp. 759–765.
Eberlin, Philippe, ‘Underwater acoustic identification of hospital ships’, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 28, No. 267, November–December 1988, pp. 505–518.

1 - Communication from the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of 9 January 1989: The Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the United Nations in Geneva has brought to the knowledge of the Swiss Government, by note dated 20 December 1988, the decision of the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to use henceforth the red crescent instead of the red cross as the emblem and distinctive sign.
2 - On 4 September 1980, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran declared that henceforth it wished to use the red crescent as the distinctive emblem and sign instead of the red lion and sun. In its communication of 23 July 2000, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran stated that ‘in the case of approval and increase of new distinctive emblems’, it will ‘maintain its right of using the Red Lion and Sun Emblem once again’.
3 - United Nations Treaty Series, Vol. 75, p. 436: ‘Subject to the reservation that, while respecting the inviolability of the distinctive signs and emblems of the Convention, Israel will use the Red Shield of David as the emblem and distinctive sign of the medical services of her armed forces.’
4 - Such application also includes the additional distinctive emblem, the red crystal emblem, established by the 2005 Additional Protocol III. See Articles 1(2) and 2(3) of that Protocol on the application and conditions of use of and respect for the red crystal emblem.
5 - See Article 39 of the First Convention and its commentary, section B.1.
6 - Articles in the other 1949 Geneva Conventions concerning the use of the red cross emblem also give equal status to the red crescent and red lion and sun emblems.
7 - This is confirmed by Article 2(1) of Additional Protocol III. This Protocol established an additional distinctive emblem, commonly known as the red crystal. This emblem may be used by States party to Additional Protocol III in the context of the Second Convention. For more details on the red crystal, see the commentary on Article 38 of the First Convention, section C.4.
8 - Additional Articles relating to the Condition of the Wounded in War (1868), Articles 12–13.
9 - Hague Convention (III) (1899), Article 5, and Hague Convention (X) (1907), Article 5.
10 - See the commentary on Article 44 of the First Convention, section E, especially para. 2687 and its fn. 56. Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (the Federation) are also permitted to use the red crystal emblem, in exceptional circumstances and to facilitate their work (see Article 4 of Additional Protocol III). Further, since 1983, the Federation (until then called the League of Red Cross Societies) has used the name and emblem of the red crescent alongside that of the red cross.
11 - Since 1991, known as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
12 - On the possibility of converting a merchant vessel into a hospital ship, see the commentary on Article 22, para. 1945. See also Article 33 on converted merchant vessels.
13 - See also the commentary on Article 43, para. 2761.