The rules protecting medical care are considered one of the cornerstones of international humanitarian law (IHL). The first modern IHL treaty (e.g., Geneva Convention of 1864) was explicitly developed to protect the wounded and sick on the battlefield and ensure their access to impartial medical care during armed conflict. Protecting and caring for the wounded and sick in war also inspired the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the broader International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement (the Movement). Today, the international rules protecting wartime medical care in the Geneva Conventions are some of the strongest on the books, so to speak, and binding on every country in the world. In 2016, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Security Council Resolution 2286 to reinforce the protection of medical care in armed conflict.

Yet, while the rules protecting medical care on the battlefield are robust, attacks on health care are unfortunately frequent in places like Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and many other armed conflict settings around the world. The ICRC launched its Health Care in Danger (HCID) project in 2011 to address this critical humanitarian problem. There are a variety of reasons for such attacks, ranging from deliberate strategies to deny medical care to certain populations, to a lack of knowledge on the laws protecting medical care or insufficient training among security forces on how to implement such rules.

The frequency of such attacks on medical care during conflicts has provoked claims that rules protecting medical care have become irrelevant in recent years. Current commentary often highlights a few contexts where this norm is repeatedly violated and suggests that respect for hospitals and health workers is in decline without basing it upon any historical or empirical analysis that compares the current to the past. This takes place amidst a wider debate about whether IHL is ‘in crisis’ given frequent and repeated violations of fundamental IHL rules on the battlefield.[1] Because there is very little research that examines the historic respect or lack of respect for this norm, it is hard to determine whether protections for wartime medical care are more or less respected than in the past. What we want to look at is whether this is in fact the case.

The ICRC invites researchers to address this gap in the literature and make a useful contribution to wider contemporary policy debates on IHL and humanitarian action. The ICRC is issuing a call for qualitative historical research that examines how and whether wartime medical care has been respected since the development of IHL treaties beginning in 1864, with a focus on addressing the following questions.

  • How does the pattern of attacks on medical care in contemporary armed conflicts compare to other periods in recent history (e.g., since the 1st Geneva Convention in 1864)?
  • What do previous examples of respect or a lack of respect for wartime medical care tell us about the present, in terms of shaping our collective public narrative on this norm today? 
  • Finally, what insights can be drawn from this historical analysis for policy responses to shore up the protection of medical care in armed conflict? Does history offer any lessons to strengthen policy advocacy on the protection of medical care?

N.B. Researchers may focus on one or multiple questions, and may engage in a broad review of history during this time period or highlight certain case studies that help address these questions.


Authors are invited to send short research proposals (about 2 pages) to the Washington Delegation of the ICRC at for review and feedback at any time. Completed policy papers should be submitted by 31 April 2019. The ICRC is interested in a multidisciplinary approach to this issue; submissions from academics or policy researchers with expertise in law, history, military strategy, social science or other relevant fields are welcome. Questions and final submissions should be directed to Submissions should be in English and not exceed 40 pages.

The ICRC is considering ways to best profile the top submissions. With the author’s permission, the ICRC may feature the best papers on the ICRC’s Humanitarian Law and Policy blog and/or invite them to speak on a panel at an ICRC sponsored conference in Washington DC or Boston during 2019.



[1] Because of this wider debate, the ICRC has undertaken a series of research initiatives to reaffirm the relevance of IHL in contemporary armed conflicts. The first, IHL in Action was launched in late 2017 and is ongoing. The second, IHL Impact, will be launch in early 2019. The underlying premise for these initiatives is that while violations do happen, ‘such a negative discourse renders violations banal and risks creating an environment where they may become more acceptable’.