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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Civil Defense

When there are natural disasters, crises caused by accidents, or armed conflicts, “civil defense” measures and services—organized by the civilian and military authorities of a country—are implemented to guarantee the relief operations necessary for the protection of the civilian population and the maintenance of public order. The principal goal is to protect civilians, mainly by trying to limit the damage that may be suffered by civilian populations or objects. Civil defense includes preventive actions, such as preparing and training the civilian population and relief personnel, installing warning systems (e.g., fire alarms), and preparing and planning of emergency assistance or evacuation.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols define civil defense as “the performance of some or all of the undermentioned humanitarian tasks intended to protect the civilian population against the dangers, and to help it to recover from the immediate effects, of hostilities or disasters and also to provide the conditions necessary for its survival. These tasks are:

  • warning;
  • evacuation;
  • management of shelters;
  • management of blackout measures;
  • rescue;
  • medical services, including first aid and religious assistance;
  • firefighting;
  • detection and marking of danger areas;
  • decontamination and similar protective measures;
  • provision of emergency accommodation and supplies;
  • emergency assistance in the restoration and maintenance of order in distressed areas;
  • emergency repair of indispensable public utilities;
  • emergency disposal of the dead;
  • assistance in the preservation of objects essential for survival;
  • complementary activities necessary to carry out any of the tasks mentioned above, including, but not limited to, planning and organization” (API Art. 61).

International humanitarian law establishes specific provisions for the protection of civil defense personnel, as well as for the installations, equipment, and supplies they use (API Arts. 61–67). Because of the close links between civil defense services and military authorities (which help organize them), the personnel and organizations involved in such activities are protected by international humanitarian law, when they are assigned exclusively to the performance of the tasks listed earlier (API Art. 61):

  • Civil defense organizations and persons must not be the target of attacks or reprisals (API Arts. 62–65).
  • Civil defense organizations, their personnel, and their materiel must be identified by a distinctive sign: a blue triangle on an orange background (API Art. 66; API annex I Art. 15).

DisasterHumanitarian and relief personnelMedical servicesMissing persons and the deadPublic order

For Additional Information: Gasser, Hans Peter. “Protection of the Civilian Population: Civil Defense.” In The Handbook of Humanitarian Law in Armed Conflicts , edited by Dieter Fleck, 209–92. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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