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The Elderly in Situations of Armed Conflict

By Françoise Krill, International Comity of the Red Cross (ICRC)


May 22, 2001 

The presence of elderly people among the victims of armed conflict is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back only to the Second World War, which claimed millions of civilian lives. Indeed, out of the 50 million killed, 26 million were military personnel and 24 million civilians. Although there is no statistical breakdown of victims per category, there can be no doubt that old people paid a heavy toll, as did women and children. 

In 1949 the international community adopted the four Geneva Conventions, notably the Fourth Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. This instrument contains two provisions which expressly mention the elderly.

During the armed conflicts that have occurred since the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions, the proportion of civilian casualties has been even higher, reaching 90% in some cases. These alarming figures are due primarily to the existence of new methods and means of warfare which have indiscriminate effects. Moreover, new types of conflicts have emerged, pitting regular armies against guerrilla groups. In this type of situation civilians are inevitably caught up in the fighting, are accused by both sides of supporting the adversary and are consequently subjected to reprisals.

The Additional Protocols adopted in 1977 constitute a response to this new situation. They supplement the 1949 Geneva Conventions, in particular by affording enhanced legal protection to civilians and hence to the elderly.

The fall of the Berlin Wall led to enormous political upheavals, but also to profound economic and social change, especially in the Balkans, in Eastern Europe and in Central Asia with the breakup of the Soviet empire. In these contexts old people became particularly vulnerable.

Protection for the elderly under international humanitarian law

International humanitarian law is not based on categories of individuals. It protects all persons who are not taking part in the hostilities, in other words civilians and persons no longer taking part in the fighting (wounded, sick and shipwrecked combatants, prisoners).

This does not mean, however, that humanitarian law does not take into account the particular vulnerability of certain categories of the population and their specific needs. Indeed, along with the rules providing special protection for women and children, it contains some provisions relating to the elderly. 

It is primarily as civilians that the elderly are protected by this body of law; it is therefore the Fourth Geneva Convention that provides that protection in general terms, with more specific rules applicable in certain circumstances.

Fortunately, the practice of recruiting children into armed groups has not been extended to old people, so there was no need to provide for special protection in the event of their participation in hostilities or to include provisions for the elderly in the Third Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

International humanitarian law says nothing about the age at which an individual is considered to be elderly. The Commentary on the Fourth Convention does, however, give an indication: "No limit was fixed for 'aged persons'. Should this expression be taken to mean those over 65, as stipulated in the Stockholm Draft? The Conference refrained from naming a definite age, preferring to leave the point to the discretion of Governments. 65 seems, however, to be a reasonable age limit. It is often the age of retirement, and it is also the age at which civilian internees have usually been released from internment by belligerent Powers". 

As far as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is concerned, this is the threshold adopted for its activities in aid of the elderly. A certain degree of flexibility is, however, essential, and it is quite possible that assistance may be given to persons below the age of 65 but rendered especially weak and vulnerable by a physical handicap, for example.

Protection of elderly members of the civilian population

Under international humanitarian law, the elderly are protected as persons not participating in the hostilities.

On the one hand, they enjoy protection from abusive behaviour on the part of the party to the conflict in whose power they are, being persons protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention. As such, they benefit from all the provisions that set forth the fundamental principle of humane treatment. In situations of non-international armed conflict, they are protected by Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions.

On the other hand, as members of the civilian population they benefit from the rules of international humanitarian law relating to the conduct of hostilities. These rules, which uphold the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants and prohibit attacks directed against the civilian population, were given written expression in the Additional Protocols of 1977.

The elderly also enjoy special protection because of their weakened condition, which renders them incapable of contributing to their country's war effort.

Although the principle of equality of treatment is enshrined in several provisions of humanitarian law, the law does allow for exceptions whereby more favourable treatment is granted in certain circumstances. For example, Article 27, para. 3, of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: "Without prejudice to the provisions relating to their state of health, age and sex, all protected persons shall be treated with the same consideration by the Party to the conflict in whose power they are, without any adverse distinction based, in particular, on race, religion or political opinion".

The principle of equality of treatment together with the exception on the grounds of age also appears in Article 16 of the Third Convention. There are also a number of other provisions requesting that age be taken into account, in particular Articles 44, 45 and 49 of the Third Convention and Articles 85, para. 2, and 119, para. 2, of the Fourth Convention.

The Fourth Geneva Convention contains two provisions affording special protection to the elderly. These are as follows.

Article 14, para. 1: "In time of peace, the High Contracting Parties and, after the outbreak of hostilities, the Parties thereto, may establish in their own territory and, if the need arises, in occupied areas, hospital and safety zones and localities so organized as to protect from the effects of war, wounded, sick and aged persons, children under fifteen, expectant mothers and mothers of children under seven."

Article 17: "The Parties to the conflict shall endeavour to conclude local agreements for the removal from besieged or encircled areas, of wounded, sick, infirm, and aged persons, children and maternity cases, and for the passage of ministers of all religions, medical personnel and medical equipment on their way to such areas."

Initiatives of the international red cross and red crescent movement.

For a very long time the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has been concerned about the plight of the elderly. This concern gave rise to a number of resolutions adopted by various International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent since 1921 (Resolution IX of the 10th Conference in 1921, Resolution VIII of the 11th Conference in 1923, Resolution XII of the 12th Conference in 1925, Resolution XXIV of the 14th Conference in 1930, and Resolution IX of the 16th Conference in 1938).

Those who drew up the 1949 Geneva Conventions took these resolutions into account in the provisions cited above.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall the situation of old people has become particularly precarious in the Balkans, in Eastern Europe and in Central Asia, and has been further aggravated by the armed conflicts that have broken out and are still raging in those regions. The elderly are therefore mentioned in the Plan of Action for the years 2000-2003 which will be presented to the 27th International Conference due to take place in Geneva from 31October to 6 November 1999. The relevant section reads: "[I]n the conduct of hostilities, every effort is made to spare the life, protect and respect the civilian population, with particular protective measures for women and groups with special vulnerabilities such as children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and displaced persons".

ICRC action in aid of elderly victims of armed conflict. 

The ICRC, which is the founding body of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, has been mandated by the international community to "work for the faithful application of humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts". It seeks to establish a relationship of trust with its contacts so as to encourage them to show greater respect for humanitarian law. For several decades the ICRC has opted for discretion as a working method, but that does not mean that it remains silent about violations of the law that it observes. 

By means of oral approaches, then written representations, and finally summary reports submitted to the highest authorities of the various parties to a conflict, the ICRC keeps those parties informed about its findings and makes recommendations aimed at improving compliance with the law. If all this yields no results, the ICRC may feel duty bound to depart from its customary policy of discretion, in the interests of the victims and under certain conditions.

The ICRC's mandate is set out in the treaties of international humanitarian law and in the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

On the basis of its mandate, the ICRC's role is to:
. spread knowledge of international humanitarian law.
. protect the civilian population;
. visit persons deprived of their freedom;
. provide emergency medical and food aid and rehabilitation services (war surgery, physical rehabilitation, support for health services, provision of safe water, shelters, hygiene products and agricultural tools, vaccination of livestock);
. restore contact between separated family members and facilitate family reunification;
Protection and assistance activities

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former USSR and its allies have undergone considerable upheavals. Owing to the collapse of the economy, retirement pensions have dwindled or even stopped altogether, as have social welfare payments of all kinds, leaving the elderly in a state of utter destitution. Families, which in other parts of the world make up for shortfalls in State aid, are small and are in no position to help. The resulting vulnerability is exacerbated by conflict and old people often find themselves alone, either having lost touch with the few relatives they had or by choice, because they do not want to be uprooted from the places where they were born. In addition, they may suffer from some physical handicap. The elderly are not only left without any means of subsistence but may also be subjected to all sorts of abuse - looting, destruction of their property, threats, physical violence, including rape and sometimes murder - because they belong to a minority or live in particularly remote villages or isolated places. Armed groups or the authorities in control of the areas where they live often follow a deliberate policy of driving out all members of the "enemy" population from the territory.

The components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement do everything they can to bring protection and assistance to these old people, who depend largely on humanitarian aid for their very survival.

The ICRC seeks to protect and assist the elderly as it does in the case of all conflict victims, but it also tries to resolve the specific problems facing them and to meet their special needs, on the basis of humanitarian law which requests that their age be taken into account.

1. Abkhazia

The ICRC considers elderly people in Abkhazia as particularly vulnerable because a large number of them belong to ethnic minorities (Russians, Armenians, Georgians) and are living in isolation. ICRC delegates regularly visit representatives of these groups in order to gather allegations of violations of humanitarian law committed against them and to pass these reports on to the Abkhaz authorities. The ICRC also keeps up its family message network to enable them, among others, to remain in contact with their relatives. A total of 13,213 family messages were distributed in 1998 and 5,085 were delivered in the first five months of 1999. In 1998, arrangements were made for eight elderly people to rejoin their families.

The economic paralysis affecting the region has repercussions on the entire population. In the past, it was primarily old people living in urban areas, where they could not grow their own food, who suffered the greatest hardship. Most of them were retirees who had come to Abkhazia during the Soviet regime because of the climate and who therefore had no family on the spot. These people benefited from relief programmes, and all those who wanted to leave and were able to do so were gradually evacuated by the ICRC between 1994 and 1998, sometimes for medical reasons. 

At present the ICRC is running several relief programmes in the region, often in close cooperation with National Red Cross Societies. Under one of the programmes, aimed at the most needy - almost all of them elderly people in rural areas - 250 individuals receive complete food rations. In the towns the Finnish Red Cross, under a delegated project, has set up 19 community kitchens providing meals for some 6,000 people, 80% of whom are elderly. The Swedish Red Cross is running an aid programme for 850 people, all of them elderly. More general programmes target needy families, enabling old people to remain within the family unit. These programmes reach 15-20,000 beneficiaries, about 40% of whom are elderly.

2. Northern Caucasus 

In this region old people are in an extremely difficult situation owing to the collapse of social services and the non-payment of pensions in almost all cases. Their purchasing power being very limited, elderly persons living in urban areas cannot afford to buy agricultural produce.

The ICRC supports 10 local Red Cross committees, including in Chechnya, in their activities to help the most needy (old people and the disabled). Food aid and other basic necessities are regularly distributed to 10,000 people. Some (slightly over 15%) of these receive aid only as a supplement, every six months. The ICRC also provides the local committees with support for their home care programme, which covers 2,200 people.

In Chechnya alone, the ICRC distributes bread to more than 12,000 people over 70 years of age (in accordance with the former Soviet criterion, which is not taken to be absolute).

Lastly, the ICRC provides support on a quarterly basis for specialized institutions, including old people's homes in Chechnya and some of the other republics.

3. Croatia

Thousands of elderly Serbs living in isolation who were unable to flee from the Krajinas during operations Flash (May 1995) and Storm (August 1995) received assistance from ICRC mobile teams based in Knin and Vojnic. Delegates visited them regularly to check on their safety and state of health. At the beginning of 1996 the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and several National Societies distributed relief supplies and provided medical and social services. ICRC mobile teams visited more than 470 villages and registered 4,787 persons. The number of vulnerable people was estimated at between 8,000 and 9,000.

4. Bosnia-Herzegovina

During the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina elderly people were regarded as particularly vulnerable, especially when atrocities were being committed against minority groups. The ICRC reached elderly and isolated members of minorities through its food-aid programmes. The combination of assistance and protection activities enabled delegates to visit these elderly people regularly without drawing attention to them. During the visits the ICRC collected information about problems relating to the protection of the groups concerned so as to make the necessary representations to the relevant authorities. In the Dvar area, where a few elderly Serbs remained, an ICRC health delegate conducted a health care/protection programme for six months.

The ICRC also helped old people to rejoin their families. At present, the ICRC is still running several food-aid and medical assistance programmes in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The ICRC provides the food component of the home care programme set up by the Red Cross organizations of the two entities to meet the needs of elderly people who are living alone and have no other means of subsistence. About a thousand volunteers are involved in this programme, which aims to reach 18,000 beneficiaries on a daily basis. The Federation covers running costs and provides hygiene items.

The American Red Cross provided aid for 55,000 elderly people in the Zenica, Tuzla and Bijeljina areas under a two-year programme that came to an end in June 1999. The relief supplies were distributed by 63 local Red Cross branches.
Between 1994 and the end of 1998, the German Red Cross ran community kitchens for 10,000 beneficiaries, most of whom were elderly people living alone and having no income. From February to June 1998 the programme took the form of distributions of food parcels. Between January and March 1999 the local Red Cross continued the community kitchen programme, with the support of the German Red Cross, for 1,000 beneficiaries in Pale/Trebinje and 2,000 Serbs remaining in Sarajevo. The German National Society also provided food parcels for 3,000 people in Sarajevo and 4,000 in Pale/Trebinje.
The Austrian Red Cross is assisting 5,595 people, most of them elderly, through community kitchens set up at 30 distribution points in the Banja Luka and Doboj areas. 
The Norwegian Red Cross is cooperating in the development of health structures, notably the geriatric centres in Banja Luka and Dagocaj and old people's homes in Aleksandrovac and Lukavica, with a view to ensuring that the elderly can live in conditions that preserve their human dignity.

During the winter of 1998-99, fuel was distributed to 20,000 households. Most of the beneficiaries were already covered by the home care programme aimed primarily at elderly people.

5. Kosovo 

In the area of protection, the ICRC considers old people, who are often living alone, as being very vulnerable and requiring just as much attention as unaccompanied children. In the context of the recent Kosovo crisis, a special effort was made to help elderly people left to fend for themselves in the camps in Macedonia and Albania. The ICRC organized 859 family reunifications, almost half of which involved old people.

6. Other contexts 

Whenever possible the ICRC requests the release of vulnerable categories of detainees, including the elderly. Below are some examples.

In 1992, during the conflict in Cambodia, the ICRC secured the release of elderly detainees on the occasion of the Khmer New Year.

In Tajikistan in 1998, women and old people were freed under amnesties granted by the government authorities.

In July 1998, in Rwanda, the authorities released 27 detainees from Kibuye prison and 20 more from Nyanza prison. Most of those released were elderly.

Shortly after the hijacking of an aircraft by an opposition group in Colombia, the ICRC secured the release of five elderly hostages on 13 April 1999 following repeated representations to the group's leaders.

If the ICRC does everything within its power to protect civilians in the places where they are living but still cannot guarantee their security, it may have no choice but to evacuate them, in accordance with international humanitarian law, in order to preserve their lives. The groups at risk often include elderly persons.

In Congo-Brazzaville in January 1999, the ICRC evacuated some 200 particularly vulnerable people, many of them elderly, from danger zones to safer areas.

In the framework of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the ICRC seeks to ensure that the expulsions carried out by both sides, which also affect old people, take place in decent conditions.


International humanitarian law affords extensive protection to the elderly as members of the civilian population. Moreover, several provisions request that the parties to conflict take age into account and encourage them to grant special treatment to this particularly vulnerable category of civilians. Finally, old people are expressly mentioned in certain provisions of the law as requiring special protection.

So if the elderly do not always enjoy the protection to which they are entitled, are subjected to abuse and excesses and are left in need, it is not for lack of legal provisions.

The reasons must be sought elsewhere, first of all in the political but also in the social and economic spheres.

The plight of the aged has long been neglected. This Conference has the great merit of reminding us that these people, who are not always in an enviable position in peacetime, see their situation deteriorate sharply in times of conflict, and that we must all join forces to alleviate their plight.

Among the steps being taken, we hope that the initiative launched by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the Plan of Action that will be presented to the 27th International Conference will lead to practical measures to respond more effectively to the needs of old people in situations of armed conflict.

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