Rule 27. Religious personnel exclusively assigned to religious duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, acts harmful to the enemy.
Volume II, Chapter 7, Section C.
State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts.
The obligation to respect and protect religious personnel goes back to the 1864 Geneva Convention and was repeated in the subsequent Geneva Conventions of 1906 and 1929.
It is now set forth in Article 24 of the First Geneva Convention and Article 36 of the Second Geneva Convention.
Its scope was expanded in Article 15 of Additional Protocol I to cover civilian religious personnel in addition to military religious personnel in all circumstances.
This extension is widely supported in State practice, which generally refers to religious personnel without distinguishing between military or civilian religious personnel.
It is also supported by States not, or not at the time, party to Additional Protocol I.
Under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, “intentionally directing attacks against … personnel using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions in conformity with international law” constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts.
This crime is relevant to religious personnel because they are entitled to use the distinctive emblems.
Numerous military manuals require respect for and protection of religious personnel.
It is an offence under the legislation of many States to violate this rule.
The rule is also supported by official statements.
The obligation to respect and protect religious personnel is set forth in Article 9 of Additional Protocol II, to which no reservations have been made.
In addition, under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, “intentionally directing attacks against … personnel using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions in conformity with international law” constitutes a war crime in non-international armed conflicts.
The protection of religious personnel is also included in military manuals which are applicable in or have been applied in non-international armed conflicts.
It is an offence under the legislation of many States to violate this rule in any armed conflict.
There is also some other practice supporting the rule specifically in non-international armed conflicts.
The ICRC has called for respect for and protection of religious personnel on several occasions, for example, in 1994 in the context of the conflict in Angola.
No official contrary practice was found with respect to either international or non-international armed conflicts.
The term “religious personnel” refers to personnel, whether military or civilian, who are exclusively engaged in the work of their ministry and attached to a party to the conflict, to its medical units or transports or to a civil defence organization. Such assignment may be either permanent or temporary. This definition is based on Article 8(d) of Additional Protocol I.
It is widely used in State practice.
In the absence of a definition of religious personnel in Additional Protocol II, this term may be understood as applying in the same sense in non-international armed conflicts.
The Netherlands has stated that “humanist counsellors” belong to religious personnel.
Other persons performing religious functions enjoy the protected status of civilians, as long as they do not take a direct part in hostilities. As civilians, they may not, however, display the distinctive emblems.
State practice generally indicates that religious personnel enjoy the same privileges as permanent medical personnel.
Hence, the meaning of the terms “respect and protection” as interpreted in the context of medical personnel (see commentary to Rule 25) applies mutatis mutandis
to religious personnel.
Based on the same reasoning, the interpretation of the exception of loss of protection of medical personnel in case of engagement in acts harmful to the enemy (or hostile acts) (see commentary to Rule 25) applies mutatis mutandis to religious personnel. As with medical personnel, only religious personnel exclusively assigned to religious duties are protected.
Based on the same reasoning, the principle that medical personnel do not lose their protection if they are equipped with light individual weapons and that they may use these weapons in their own defence or in that of the wounded, sick and shipwrecked in their care (see commentary to Rule 25) would apply mutatis mutandis
to religious personnel. This is explicitly recognized by Germany’s Military Manual, even though it adds that chaplains in the German army are not armed.
The UK LOAC Manual, meanwhile, states that chaplains attached to the armed forces may not be armed.
No further specifications in practice were found.