December 13 is the 11th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It’s a good moment to reflect on the protection of persons with disabilities in armed conflict.

International humanitarian law and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) have different starting points. Nevertheless, they share significant commonalities in accommodating the specific capacities, experiences and perspectives of persons with disabilities in armed conflict. This cohesion can be seen particularly in the assessment of prohibited inhuman acts as well as in the requirement that positive measures for persons with disabilities be taken to ensure that they are able to effectively access services on an equal basis with others. Positive measures may include the adaptation of infrastructure and information on available vital services relating to water, food, sanitation, shelter, health care and rehabilitation; the provision of support to transport food and non-food relief items; the continued provision of services required by persons with disabilities; or, assistance to victims of the use of certain weapons in armed conflicts.

IHL provides additional protection for persons with disabilities in armed conflict. While the CRPD binds only States party to it, IHL imposes obligations on organized non-state armed groups—in addition to State armed forces. IHL may also further prevent or minimize harm to persons with disabilities resulting from specific risks for them in armed conflict, including harm resulting from military operations, or being trapped in areas where hostilities are ongoing.

Admittedly, the terminology IHL uses for referring to persons with disabilities in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Additional Protocols (such as ‘infirm’, the ‘wounded and sick’ or ‘disabled’) was a product of the social and historical context of its time, and is certainly outdated in light of contemporary understandings of disability. This, however, does not detract from the fact that—already then—persons with disabilities were recognized as requiring protection under IHL. The relevant rules reflect an acknowledgement of their specific needs and the barriers they may face, as well as the particular risks to which they are exposed in their armed conflict environment. Furthermore, under a contemporary interpretation of IHL, this in no way implies that persons with disabilities are seen as mere objects of pity or passive victims in need of protection rather than agents of their own destiny. Appreciating the complementary and mutually reinforcing nature of IHL and the CRPD may facilitate current efforts aiming to operationalize better inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in humanitarian activities in armed conflict. The ICRC is committed to this aim in its own humanitarian activities and it stands ready to constructively engage with other stakeholders in this regard.

Provided here is a paper setting out more in detail the commonalities between IHL and the CRPD, as well as IHL’s specific contribution to protecting persons with disabilities in armed conflict.

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Alexander Breitegger is a Legal Adviser at the ICRC in Geneva. His thematic files include the protection of persons with disabilities under IHL. In that capacity, he provides legal support to ICRC’s ambitions to contribute to better inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in humanitarian activities in armed conflict.