Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 1960 


1. ' First sentence. -- Humane treatment ' (1)

The requirement that protected persons must at all times be humanely treated is the basic theme of the Geneva Conventions (2). The expression "humanely treated" is taken from the Hague Regulations and the two 1929 Geneva Conventions.
The word "treated" must be understood here in its most general sense as applying to all aspects of life. With regard to the concept of humanity, the purpose of the Convention is none other than to define the correct way to behave towards a human being; each individual is desirous of the treatment corresponding to his status and can therefore judge how he should, in turn, treat his fellow human beings. The principal elements of humane treatment are subsequently listed in the Article.
The requirement of humane treatment and the prohibition of certain acts inconsistent with it are general and absolute in character. They are valid at all times, and apply, for example, to cases where repressive measures are legitimately imposed on a protected person, since the dictates of humanity must be respected even if measures of security or repression are being applied. The obligation remains fully valid in relation to persons in prison or interned, whether in the territory of a Party to the conflict or in occupied territory. It is in such situations, when human values appear to be in greatest peril, that the provision assumes its full importance.

2. ' Second sentence. -- Threats to the life or health of prisoners '

The first obligation is to protect the life and health of prisoners; this is a fundamental obligation which stems from the right of prisoners to be treated humanely. This is already included in the general concept of humane treatment which is stated at the beginning of the Article, but the authors of the Convention decided to denounce it specifically as a serious breach; the other "grave breaches" are listed in Article 130 .

3. ' Third sentence. -- Mutilation and medical experiments '

The authors of the Convention wished expressly to prohibit mutilation and medical experiments which are a particularly reprehensible [p.141] form of attack on the human person. This prohibition is also included in Article 130 . The intention was to abolish for ever the criminal practices inflicted on thousands of persons during the Second World War.
The Convention, of course, refers only to experiments not justified by the medical treatment of the prisoner concerned. It does not prevent doctors from using treatment for medical reasons with the sole object of improving the patient's condition. It must be permissible to use new medicaments and methods invented by science, provided that they are used only for therapeutic purposes. The prisoners must not in any circumstances be used as "guinea-pigs" for medical or scientific experiments.


The concept of humane treatment implies in the first place the absence of any kind of corporal punishment. But it does not only have this negative aspect. The present provision adds the notion of protection. To protect someone means to stand up for him, to give him assistance and support and also to defend or guard him from injury or danger. It is therefore a positive obligation for the Detaining Power at all times which follows from the obligation to treat prisoners humanely. The protection extends to moral values, such as the moral independence of the prisoner (protection against acts of intimidation) and his honour (protection against insults and public curiosity).


Article 2, paragraph 3 , of the Geneva Convention of 1929 already forbade measures of reprisal against prisoners of war; after the First World War, the International Committee of the Red Cross had considerable difficulty in obtaining sufficient support for the idea that reprisals on the person of prisoners of war should be prohibited. Many people considered that in the event of one of the Parties committing illicit acts in regard to prisoners in its hands, reprisals or the threat of reprisals on prisoners in the hands of the other Party constituted the most effective, if not the only means of ensuring a return [p.142] to normal conditions (3). But this argument did not prevail over the view that it was inhuman that a defenceless man should be held responsible for acts which he had not himself committed. It must, moreover, be pointed out that quite apart from the fact that the safeguards afforded to prisoners would be endangered by the launching of systematic reprisals, the feelings which lie behind such practices are absolutely contrary to
the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. It was not always easy to obtain respect for the corresponding provision of the 1929 Convention, and the efforts made by the International Committee of the Red Cross in this field during the Second World War demonstrate the great importance of this rule (4). It forms part of the general obligation to treat prisoners humanely both by virtue of its practical importance and because of its very great moral significance.
Moreover, it need hardly be pointed out that reprisals rarely solve the initial problem. They do not lead to a re-establishment of lawful practices but involve those who apply them in a vicious circle of reprisals and counter-reprisals which brings a gradual deterioration of the law and standard of values which one wishes to protect. And even if they bring a solution for a short time, the danger is that they may engender fresh hatred which would be a factor conducive to fresh conflicts.

* (1) [(1) p.140] See Jean S. PICTET, ' Red Cross Principles, '
pp. 14-31;

(2) [(2) p.140] See First and Second Conventions, Article 12;
Fourth Convention, Article 27;

(3) [(1) p.142] The Hague Agreement concluded between the
British and German Governments on July 2, 1917, contained
a provision in Chapter IX stating that measures of
reprisal should be taken only after at least four weeks'
notice of this intention had been given. The Agreement
also provided for an endeavour to remove the motives for
reprisals by means of direct discussion (See ' Bulletin
international des Sociétés de la Croix-Rouge, ' 1917, p.

(4) [(2) p.142] See ' Report of the International Committee of
the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World
War, ' Vol. I, pp. 365-372;