The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

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Distinctive (or Protective) Emblems, Signs, and Signals

Emblems and signs may be used to identify and protect certain humanitarian or peaceful activities, persons, or locations. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols list these distinctive signs, which indicate that the persons or objects wearing or carrying the signs benefit from specific international protection and must not be the target of any attack or act of violence (GCI Arts. 24, 33, 35, 38–44, Annex I; GCII Arts. 41–45; GCIV Arts. 18–22; API Arts. 18, 37–39, 85, Annex I).

The Different Distinctive Emblems

Annex I to the first 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions provides a list and explains the protective role of the distinctive emblems:

  • The red cross (or red crescent) on a white background protects all medical services, such as medical and religious personnel, medical units, and means of transportation. Since 2005, any member of the International Movement of the Red Cross or the Red Crescent may, if they do not want to use the Red Cross or the Red Crescent for cultural or operational reasons, use the Red Crystal (see infra).
  • Oblique red stripes on a white background designate medical and safety zones and localities.
  • A shield, consisting of a royal blue square and triangle, and two white triangles, designate cultural objects and property.
  • An equilateral blue triangle on an orange background protects civil defense personnel, installations, and material.
  • A group of three bright orange circles of equal size, placed along the same axis and with the distance between each circle being one radius, protects works and installations containing dangerous forces.
  • A white flag is the flag of truce and is reserved for parlementaires (persons authorized to negotiate directly with the adverse party).
  • The letters IC (for internment camp) and PW or PG (for prisoners of war or prisonniers de guerre ) designate internment camps for civilian internees and for prisoners of war.

The Red Cross, Red Crescent, and Red Crystal Emblems

The conditions governing the use of emblems differ in times of war and of peace. In December 2005, at a Diplomatic Conference, the Movement of the Red Crescent and the Red Cross adopted a third emblem, which has no religious or political connotation: the red crystal. It looks like a red square put on its head, on a white background. The creation of this third emblem is acknowledged in the Third Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, which had seventy-two States Parties as of June 2015. This distinctive emblem is official since 2007, but it has not been used on the field yet.

When the emblems are used as indications (small size), whether in times of peace or of war, they show that a person or a place has a link with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. In times of war, they serve as a means to ensure protection (large emblems). Their use indicates that the medical personnel, services, installations, or material wearing the emblem enjoy protection provided to medical services by humanitarian law (GCI Arts. 38–44, 53–54; GCII Arts. 41–43; API Art. 18). Any deliberate attack on persons or objects carrying the protective emblems is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions and under the Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Hence, this protective emblem does not belong to the Red Cross Movement but may also be used by other organizations to protect medical activities. The ICRC can use the emblem at all times, for both protective and indicative reasons. National Red Cross Societies’ use of the emblem in times of war, however, is restricted by a set of rules adopted by the ICRC in 1991, which specify the condition under which they may use the emblem.

General Conditions Governing the Use of Distinctive or Protective Emblems

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols further regulate the general use of all distinctive or protective emblems and signs recognized and protected by the Conventions. In particular, they clearly specify when it is forbidden to use them:

  • It is prohibited to feign intent to negotiate under a flag of truce or of surrender (API Art. 37). Customary international humanitarian law recalls that in situation of international and non-international armed conflicts, it is prohibited to use unduly the white flag (Rule 58 of ICRC customary IHL study published in 2005).
  • It is prohibited to make improper use of the distinctive emblem of the Red Cross, Red Crescent, Red Lion and Sun, or any other emblems, signs, or signals provided for by the Conventions or by Additional Protocol I (API Art. 38 and Rule 59).
  • It is also prohibited to misuse deliberately other internationally recognized protective emblems, signs, or signals in an armed conflict, including the flag of truce and the protective emblem of cultural property (API Art. 38 and Rule 59).
  • It is prohibited to make use of the distinctive emblem of the United Nations, except as authorized by that organization (API Art. 38 and Rule 60).
  • It is prohibited, in an armed conflict, to use the flags or military emblems, insignia, or uniforms of neutral or other States not party to the conflict (API Art. 39 and Rule 63).
  • It is prohibited to make use of the flags or military emblems, insignia, or uniforms of adverse parties, whether during attacks or in order to shield, favor, protect, or impede military operations (API Art. 39 and Rule 62).
  • It is prohibited to direct attacks against medical and religious personnel and objects displaying the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions in conformity with international law (Rule 30 of the customary IHL study).


The perfidious use of the distinctive emblem of the Red Cross, Red Crescent, Red Crystal, Red Lion and Sun, or other protective signs recognized by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols constitutes a grave breach of the laws of war. In other words, it is a war crime covered by the principle of universal jurisdiction (API Art. 85) and the statute of the ICC (Art 8.2.b.vii and 8.2.c.ii).

As for the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems (the only two signs currently used by the Red Cross Movement), States party to the Geneva Conventions have the obligation to adopt laws and sanctions to be enforced before national courts that prevent and punish the perfidious use of these emblems in times of peace or of war. To implement such measures, domestic laws must be adapted to integrate the protection of these emblems.

Medical personnelMedical servicesPerfidyProtected objects and propertyProtected personsProtectionSelf-defenseUniversal jurisdictionWar crimes/Crimes against humanity

For Additional Information: “Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem.” International Review of the Red Cross 861 (March 2006): 187–96.

Bugnion, François. “The Red Cross and Red Crescent Emblems.” International Review of the Red Cross 272 (September–October 1989): 408–19.

Cauderay, Gérald. Means of Identification for Protected Medical Transports . Geneva: ICRC, 1994.

Dinstein, Yoram. The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Eberlin, Philippe. Protective Signs . Geneva: ICRC, 1983.

Henckaerts, Jean-Marie, and Louise Doswald-Beck, eds. Customary International Law . Vol. 1, The Rules . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, esp. part 1.

Sommaruga, Cornelio. “Unity and Plurality of the Emblems.” International Review of the Red Cross 289 (July–August 1992): 333–38.

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