The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

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

■ Distinctive (or Protective) Emblems, Signs, and Signals

Emblems and signs may be used to identify and notify the special protection to 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 and 38–44, Annex I; GCII Arts. 41–45; GCIV Arts. 18–22; API Arts. 18, 37–39, 85 and Annex I). These emblems reflect a special status of protection provided by International Humanitarian law (IHL) beyond the general IHL protection prohibiting direct attack on civilians. IHL does not provide for special distinctive sign allowing identification of civilian people, building or goods as such. It solely enhances some possibility of special identification through notably identity cards and distinctive signals while relying on the imperative duty of commander to positively identify military objective as opposed to civilians.


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 or red lion (no longer utilized) 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 defence 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.

As societies digitalize, cyber operations are becoming a reality of armed conflict. The number of States developing military cyber capabilities continues to grow, and it is expected that the use of these capabilities during armed conflict will increase. In that regard, the idea of a “digital emblem” has emergence and the ICRC released a report on this matter in 2022.

Furthermore, having a “digital emblem” is already somehow foreseen in IHL since the possibility of using ‘distinctive signals’, including lights, radio or electronic signals to indicate that an entity is protected if found at articles 6-9 of Annex I to Protocol Additional I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949: Regulations concerning identification. It can be expected that in the future, cyber operations during armed conflict will be conducted at a fast pace. In that context, this additional signal can have real added value – just like the former physical visual emblems.


The conditions governing the use of emblems differ in times of war and of peace. The Conventions and Additional Protocols initially authorized the use of four emblems – the red cross, the red crescent, the red crystal and the red lion and sun – on a white background but today only the first three are used. Indeed, since 1980, no State has used the emblem of the lion and sun. Iran, the only State to have employed it, renounced to its use in order to avoid the proliferation of international emblems denoting charitable and assistance activities and to favour the unification of these emblems. 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 79 States parties as of January 2023. This distinctive emblem is official since 2007, however it has not yet been used in an armed conflict.

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 IHL (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 Rome 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 in its protective usage in times of armed conflict.


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 IHL 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 use unduly 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 customary IHL 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 customary IHL Rule 61).

•It is prohibited to make use of the distinctive emblem of the United Nations, except as authorized by that organization (API Art. 38 and customary IHL 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 customary IHL 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, favour, protect, or impede military operations (API Art. 39 and customary IHL 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 (customary IHL Rule 30).

The use of the emblem is also regulated by the domestic law of all States parties to the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. This is intended to avoid abuse and allow enforcement and sanction in front of domestic courts. However, numerous domestic laws confer to the ministry of defence the authority to permit the use of the emblem in situation of armed conflict. Therefore, domestic legislation on the emblem would largely deprive non-State armed group party to the conflict from the right to use the red cross emblem for protecting medical facilities under their territorial control. This constraint has been notably exemplified since the start of the Syrian war in 2011 by absence of emblem and numerous attacks on medical facilities located in territory under the control of non-State armed opposition groups. However, it must be recalled that the display of the medical protected emblem, is a visible sign of the protected status of a medical facility but not a precondition for it. Indeed, it is the knowledge of the humanitarian and medical nature of a given person, activity and facility that create its protected status whether or not it displays the protective emblem. The knowledge of the humanitarian and medical status of a facility by the parties to the conflict may also be asserted through special notification system. Humanitarian notification is therefore instrumental in the protection against attack as a complement to visual identification.


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. 37(1)(d) and 85(3)(f)) and the Rome statute of the ICC (Art 8(2)(b)(vii)).

As for the Red Cross, Red Crescent and Red Crystal emblems (the only three 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.


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For Additional Information:*

Bugnion, François. “The Red Cross and Red Crescent Emblems” International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 29, No. 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.

Final Act of the Diplomatic Conference on the adoption of the Third Protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem (Protocol III), “Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 88, No. 861 (March 2006): 187–96.

XIX Guide pour la mise en œuvre des règles protégeant la fourniture des soins de santé dans les conflits armés et autres situations d’urgence, available at

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

International Committee of the Red Cross, Study on the use of the emblems: operational and commercial and other non-operational issues, Geneva, 2011, 336 pages, available at Digitalizing the Red Cross, Red Crescent and Red Crystal Emblems, 3 November 2022, 44 pages, available at

Sommaruga, Cornelio. “Unity and Plurality of the Emblems”,*International Review of the Red Cross , Vol. 32, No. 289 (July–August 1992): 333–38.

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