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2.3.13 Geneva Protocols I and II 1977

In 1977 the Geneva Conventions of 1949 were amplified by the 1977 Protocols to those Conventions6

The provisions of the 1949 Conventions were restated, greatly amplified and extended in the Protocols by Geneva Protocol I as follows:-

Article 35 section 3 says:- "It is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected to cause, widespread long term and severe damage to the environment";

Article 36 provides that a party to the convention is under an obligation to determine the lawfulness of the use of new weapons yet to be invented;

Article 48 provides for respect and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, and that parties to a conflict shall distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and civilian objects and military objects and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives;

Article 51 provides further protection for individual civilians and the civilian population from dangers arising from military operations;

Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited and are identified as

  1. those not directed at a specific military objective;
  2. those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective, or
  3. those that employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this protocol; and consequently are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.
  4. an attack by bombardment by any means which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives, located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilian or civilian objects; and
  5. an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

Attacks against civilian populations or civilians by way of reprisals are prohibited.

Article 52 provides general protection to civilian objects and limits attacks to military objects as defined.

Article 53 provides protection for cultural objects and places of worship.

Article 54 provides protection to objects indispensable to the survival of civilians.

Article 55 provides that:

  1. "care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread long term and severe damage. This protection includes a prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause such damage to the natural environment and thereby to prejudice the health or survival of the population";
  2. "attacks against the environment by way of reprisals are prohibited".

Article 56 provides protection against attacks on dams, dikes and nuclear electrical generating stations even where these objectives are military objectives, "if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population".

Article 59 provides that "It is prohibited for the Parties to the conflict to attack, by any means whatsoever, non-defended localities".

The Tribunal was interested to note that at the time of the 1977 Protocols, the issue was raised whether these were applicable to nuclear weapons.

The earlier history of these Protocols shows that they originated from concern about the fate of civilians in nuclear war and this had been reflected by the number of Resolutions of the General Assembly of the U.N.

In June 1977 the U.S. representative U.N. Ambassador Aldrich said, "We recognize that nuclear weapons are the subject of separate negotiations and agreements, and furthermore their use in warfare is governed by the present principles of International Law."

The U.S., and Britain adopted a reservation to the effect that "the 1977 protocols were not applicable to nuclear weapons". The Tribunal did however note that no such reservation was made when it came to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, even though nuclear weapons were already in existence.


6 Geneva Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, and, Geneva Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, 1977.

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