Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
  • Print page
Commentary of 1960 

[p.233] This Article is new and represents the adaptation to conditions at sea of the corresponding provision of the First Convention (Article 40 ).


1. ' Wearers '

Those entitled to wear the armlet -- the distinguishing sign which allows medical personnel to be recognized from far off -- are the persons referred to in Articles 36 and 37 -- namely members of the medical services (whether of the regular navy or the merchant marine) and members of a Red Cross Society or other recognized relief society of a belligerent or a neutral country assisting the Medical Service of one of the Parties to the conflict. Such "voluntary personnel" may or may not wear uniform.

2. ' Description of the armlet '

The armlet is to bear the distinctive emblem. This being a red cross on a white ground, there is no necessity, in theory, for [p.234] the armlet itself to be white, provided the cross is surrounded by a white ground.
In any case, it is now the custom everywhere for all medical personnel to be provided with a white armlet bearing a red cross and it is to be hoped that this practice will remain. Besides being easier to manufacture, such armlets are the only ones which give good visibility, owing to the contrast of colours.
The armlet is to be "water-resistant". This provision, which aims at keeping it in good condition, must be regarded as being in the nature of a recommendation. The fact that an armlet is not waterproof could obviously not be held to deprive it of its protective value.
As in the case of the red cross emblem generally, the form and dimensions of the armlet are not specified -- and for the same good reasons. It is again laid down, however, that it is to be affixed to the left arm -- "affixed", because it is not intended to be taken off and put on again at will, and the risk of loss must be avoided; "to the left arm", because it is desirable that it should be worn in a stated position, where the eye will naturally look for it. Here again, a belligerent could not claim the right to deny protection to a medical orderly who for some plausible reason wore the armlet on his right arm.

3. ' Stamp of the military authority '

What is above all essential is to ensure the bona fides of the wearer: the armlet must be worn only by those who are entitled to it under the Convention.
The armlet is not in itself sufficient evidence; as has been remarked, it is a simple matter to make an armlet and slip it on -- in which case the wearer is liable to a penalty, even if he wears the armlet for its legitimate purpose while coming to the assistance of the wounded. The belligerents must have proper safeguards.
The armlet will have no protective value, and cannot be lawfully worn, unless it has been stamped and issued by the military authority. This time the condition is an essential one admitting of no exception. Issue alone does not suffice; the official stamp must be there to show that the armlet has been issued by, and [p.235] on the responsibility of, the military authority. The enemy can, of course, only satisfy himself on this point in case of capture; but a check of this sort is most valuable and should prevent abuses.
What "military authority" is competent to stamp and issue the armlet? As we pointed out in reference to Article 41, where the expression "competent military authority" is used, the point was deliberately left vague, and with good reason. The important thing is that the use of the emblem must be controlled by an official military authority fully aware of its responsibility, and cannot be left to the initiative of the first comer. What is necessary under the present Article is that an official military authority, whose name appears on the stamp, should be responsible for issuing the armlet.
As the benefits of the Convention have now been extended to apply also to the merchant marine, the medical personnel of the latter are entitled to use the red cross emblem. The drafters of the 1949 Conventions were certainly not all aware of this, for the present paragraph states that the military authority is to issue and stamp the armlet; the next paragraph states that the same authority will stamp the identity card; lastly, the model identity card annexed to the Convention mentions only medical and religious personnel attached to the armed forces at sea. Yet the merchant marine is not part of the navy.
Be that as it may, it is perhaps a good thing in practice that the military authority is thus given general control over the use of the distinctive emblem.

4. ' Use of the flag by medical personnel '

Useful though the armlet is, it cannot be said to be perfect as a means of identification. Being small, it will not always be sufficiently visible at a distance to ensure the safety of those wearing it. A practice frequently adopted by medical orderlies and stretcher-bearers detailed to collect the wounded between the lines is for one of them to carry and wave a white flag bearing the red cross. They could no doubt do the same thing when in a rescue craft, trying to pick up shipwrecked persons.
[p.236] There is nothing to prevent this in the Convention. A group of medical orderlies, however small -- even one person -- must be regarded as a medical unit. Use of the flag in such circumstances must naturally be absolutely bona fide; it may not in any circumstances be used to cover fighting troops.
The best way to ensure the security of medical personnel would undoubtedly be for them to wear a special uniform, the same in all countries and different in colour from the uniforms worn by fighting troops. This idea was suggested when the Red Cross was first founded, but it has not so far been adopted. Perhaps one day it will be taken up again.


The armlet is not in itself sufficient to establish the status of the wearer. If he falls into enemy hands, he must be able to prove that he is entitled to wear it. He must also be in a position to prove that he is a member of the medical or religious personnel, in order that he may enjoy the status accorded to him under the Convention, and be eligible for repatriation. A special identity card is therefore necessary.

1. ' Standardization '

To eliminate serious drawbacks which were found to exist during the Second World War (1), the 1949 Diplomatic Conference adopted a proposal in the draft revised texts to make the identity card uniform throughout the same armed forces. All permanent staff, whether medical personnel, administration personnel (for instance crews of hospital ships) or chaplains, and whether they belong to the navy, the merchant marine or a Red Cross Society, will now have the same type of identity card.
It is also recommended that the card should be of the same type in all armed forces. A specimen is annexed to the Convention [p.237] as a model (2). It is hoped that the Powers will use it. At all events, the Parties to the conflict must, at the outbreak of hostilities, inform one another of the model they are using.
Identity cards should be made out, if possible, in duplicate, one card being issued to the bearer and the other kept by the home country. If he is taken prisoner and has lost his card, it will be possible to prove his status by referring to the duplicate. This precaution was recommended by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and should help to avoid disputes. During the preparatory work of revision, certain experts had proposed that duplicates of all identity cards issued should be sent to the International Committee. That course did not appear feasible, however, as Governments are not always prepared to disclose the exact numbers of their medical personnel.

2. ' Description of the card '

The various features of the identity card designed by the Conference and the information it is to contain make it a document of real practical value.
First of all it is to bear the red cross emblem.
To make it more durable, the card, like the armlet, is to be water-resistant. In some countries it is now entirely covered by a transparent, non-inflammable plastic coating which cannot be removed.
The card is to be pocket-size. There is a good reason for this; it was found that when identity cards were too big, their owners were apt to keep them in their packs -- which are not normally worn on the battlefield -- or to leave them in their billets.
The card must be worded in the national language. For practical reasons, the Conference rejected an earlier proposal which would have made it obligatory for the data to be given in several languages; that may obviously still be done if desired, and countries with little-known languages will probably prefer to use a second [p.238] and more generally known language in addition to their own. Countries with more than one national language will be in a similar position.
The particulars which must be given are the surname and the first names of the bearer, his date of birth, his rank and his service number. States may add whatever further details they desire.
The card must also indicate in what capacity the bearer is entitled to the protection of the Convention. As a minimum, it would appear necessary to state whether he is a member of the medical personnel or chaplains'branch, the medical staff proper or the administrative staff, whether he belongs to the Medical Service or to a recognized relief society and, in the latter case, whether the society is from a belligerent or neutral country.
Further details seem highly desirable in the interest of the wounded and sick. It should be possible for retained medical staff to be detailed at once for employment in accordance with their particular qualifications. At the Conference, the delegation which proposed the provision suggested that the "qualification and/or medical duty for which trained" should be specified. That expression does not appear in the final text, but we feel the idea should be kept in mind. Not only would it be useful to distinguish between physicians, surgeons, dentists, medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers, etc., but also to sub-divide physicians still further into eye specialists, neurologists, and so on.
The card must bear the photograph of the owner. This essential means of identification, which was considered too complicated in 1929, is now so widely used that it was accepted without discussion at the Conference.
The same thing was not true in the case of finger-prints. The proposal to make them obligatory was rejected, even although they offer a surer means of identification than photographs, and are more easily obtained. The difficulties were of a psychological nature: in some countries only criminals, or at all events those accused of offences, have their finger-prints taken, and the public has this association in mind. With time, the prejudice will probably disappear.
At present, finger-prints are optional; so is the bearer's signature, because illiteracy still exists, in the twentieth century, to [p.239] a greater extent than is generally supposed. Consequently, Governments may decide to have either the bearer's finger-prints, or his signature, or both, on the card; but one or the other must appear. It cannot be too highly recommended to have both whenever possible, as that will provide a double check.
The final condition imposed by the Convention is the most important: the card must be embossed with the stamp of the military authority. It is this stamp which makes the card, like the armlet, authentic. It will be noted that the word "embossed" -- i.e. stamped by pressure -- is used; experience has shown that the usual wet stamps can rub off, and can be imitated with comparative ease (3).

3. ' The identity disc '

At the beginning of paragraph 2, in the sentence which lays down that medical personnel are to carry an identity card, we find the words "in addition to wearing the identity disc mentioned in Article 19 ". These words refer to the disc -- preferably double -- which all military personnel must wear, so that their bodies can be identified in case of death. Further details are given in the commentary on Article 19 (4).


This paragraph expressly confirms the right of medical personnel to keep their identity papers and wear the armlet in all circumstances, i.e. even when retained by the adverse Party to assist their fellow-countrymen who are prisoners.
The provision is a necessary one. In both World Wars medical personnel sometimes had their armlets and cards taken from them -- a convenient way for the captor State to evade its obligations. Such practices must be strictly forbidden; the special insignia and cards of medical personnel may be withdrawn only by the military authorities of their own armed forces.
[p.240] Should the armlet be lost or destroyed, the owner must be issued with a new one. If he loses his identity card, he is entitled to a duplicate. This provision lays an obligation not only on the Power of origin, but also on the captor Power which must do all it can to facilitate the transmission of new cards and armlets for captured enemy medical personnel who are found to be without them. During the Second World War a large number of identity cards were transmitted to medical personnel in captivity through the intermediary of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

* (1) [(1) p.236] See ' Commentary I, ' pp. 312-313;

(2) [(1) p.237] The model will be found on p. 284. Its title
should be modified in the case of the medical personnel of
the merchant marine, who are not attached to the armed

(3) [(1) p.239] In a final Resolution, the Diplomatic
Conference recommended that States and National Red Cross
Societies should take all necessary steps, in time of
peace, to provide medical personnel with their identity
cards and armlets. See below, p. 286;

(4) [(2) p.239] See above, p. 143;