By Heike Spieker
Civil defense refers to a variety of practical measures to protect civilians in wars and natural disasters. The purpose of civil defense is to ensure the survival of the civilian population, including the buildings, vehicles, facilities, and other objects necessary for survival. For example, Israel after the Scud bombardment during the Gulf War strengthened its civil defense system by stepping up the construction of air-raid shelters.
Civil defense can be carried out by civilians or the military either in occupied territory or in any part of territories of parties to the conflict. Among the activities covered are warning systems; arrangements for evacuation; management of shelters; fire fighting and rescue; medical services including first aid; religious counseling; the provision of emergency accommodation and supplies; the repair of indispensable public utilities; and safeguarding objects essential for survival.
Explicit rules for the protection of civil defense in occupied territory were codified in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and Additional Protocol I of 1977. These provide narrowly defined legal protection that applies principally where civil defense is carried out by civilians, be they officials or private citizens. This protection balances the diverging interests of civil defense organizations, civilian population and occupying power.
Under Article 63 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, civilian civil defense organizations “shall be able to pursue their activities… by the maintenance of the essential public utility services, by the distribution of relief and by the organization of rescues.” The occupying power may not impose “temporary and exceptional measures” except for “urgent reasons of security” and may not require changes in the personnel or structure of civilian civil defense organizations that would be disadvantageous to their activities.
Protocol I further strengthens civilian protections and states that civilian civil defense organizations shall be “respected and protected” and are entitled to perform their tasks except in cases of imperative military necessity. Units and personnel must display a distinctive insignia (a blue triangle in an orange square) and only the owners of civil defense facilities and equipment have the right to destroy or divert them from their proper use.
Occupying powers are obliged to grant civilian civil defense organizations the necessary facilities and not to divert buildings nor matériel if this would harm the civilian population. Military units assigned to civil defense are also to be “respected and protected” if they are permanently assigned and exclusively devoted to the tasks, perform no other military duties, during the conflict, and display the insignia.
Violating the protections of Protocol I constitutes an illegal act by the State and constitutes a grave breach if civilian personnel of a civil defense organization are made the object of attack.
If civilian civil defense organizations, their personnel, buildings, shelters, and matériel are used to harm the enemy, their protection ceases. But organizing civil defense at the direction of military authorities, cooperating with the military in civil defense tasks, and organizing along military lines do not constitute “acts harmful to the enemy.”
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