Expert Briefing: Care for the wounded and sick – legal obligations in today’s armed conflicts

Ongoing course
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*With Lindsey Cameron, Legal Adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)*

What does the international legal obligation to care for the wounded and sick mean in practice in today’s armed conflicts?

The basic principle underlying all four Geneva Conventions is respect for the life and dignity of the individual, even – or especially – in situations of armed conflict. Those who suffer during armed conflict must not only be respected but also protected and cared for. While this protection was initially extended only to the wounded and sick in the armed forces, it developed into the comprehensive body of international humanitarian treaty law that today governs the protection of all victims of armed conflict, including civilians.

The updated Commentary on the First Geneva Convention, published earlier this spring, results from extensive research in practice over the last 60 years in relation to the provisions of the First Convention and those common to the four Conventions, including article 3. This includes how States, national and international courts and scholars have interpreted the obligation to care for the wounded and sick. Designed for legal practitioners as well as humanitarian practitioners needing an advanced understanding of IHL, this briefing will cover the main points in the commentary concerning these provisions, focusing in particular on:

  • Who falls under the definition of "wounded and sick" for the purpose of the obligation of care?
  • What is the geographical reach of the obligation – on the battlefield and beyond?
  • What type of care is required, and by whom?
  • How should the obligation be interpreted in contexts where a belligerent is ‘present’ in the theatre of conflict exclusively through aerial means?

The briefing started with a brief overview of the Commentaries project, after which participants were presented with some key findings of the updated Commentary related to the above-mentioned issues. There was also an opportunity for questions.

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