One of the main objectives of IHL is to protect civilians and civilian objects. Persons are protected irrespective of gender, ethnic origin, nationality, religion, political opinion or any other such criteria.

Under the First and Second Geneva Conventions combatants acquire the status of “protected persons” as soon as they are wounded, sick or shipwrecked, provided they do not engage in any hostile acts.

Additional Protocol I extends this protection to any wounded, sick or shipwrecked person, whether military or civilian.

Geneva Convention I: Wounded and sick soldiers in armed forces in the field
Geneva Convention II: Wounded, sick and shipwrecked soldiers at sea during war

The belligerent parties must abstain from any hostile acts against protected persons. Protected persons may not be the target of attacks.

Treatment and care
Protected persons must be treated humanely. All violence to life and person is prohibited.

Equal treatment
Protected persons must be treated without discrimination. Priority access to health care may be given on medical grounds only.

The belligerent parties must search for and collect the wounded and sick, protect them against pillage and ill-treatment, and ensure that they are adequately cared for.

The dead and the missing
The belligerent parties must search for and collect the dead and prevent their pillage. Every party to the conflict must search for persons who have been reported missing by an adverse party. The basic principle underlying this rule is that every family has the right to know the fate of its loved ones.

International humanitarian law contains complete, detailed provisions on the protection of medical units, transports and equipment:

Military or civilian medical units: these include all buildings and other fixed installations (hospitals, etc.) as well as mobile units (tents, open-air installations, etc.).

Medical transports: this refers to any transport (by land, water or air) of the wounded, sick or shipwrecked, of medical and religious personnel, and of medical equipment protected by the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I.

Medical units and transports must be respected and protected by the belligerent parties at all times and may not be attacked. Under no circumstances may they be used to protect military objectives from attack.

Loss of protection
Medical structures can lose their protection only if they are used to commit acts harmful to the enemy (for example to shelter soldiers who are not wounded or to set up military observation posts). However, in such cases protection is lost only after due warning has been given and a reasonable time limit been fixed, and after such a warning has remained unheeded.

Distinctive emblems
The sign of the red cross, red crescent or red crystal must be displayed on the flags, buildings, installations and mobile formations of medical units, on their means of transport, as well as on armlets, clothes and headgear of medical and religious personnel. It permits the identification of the persons and objects protected by international humanitarian law. Even though protection is not afforded only by use of the emblem, the absence of a distinctive sign may make identification difficult or even impossible. The sign must be as large as the circumstances require.