Non-Refoulement between ‘Common Article 1’ and ‘Common Article 3’

in David J. Cantor and Jean-Francois Durieux (eds), Refuge from Inhumanity? War Refugees and International Humanitarian Law (Brill, 2014) 386-408

27 Pages Posted: 21 Jul 2015 Last revised: 29 Sep 2015

See all articles by Reuven (Ruvi) Ziegler

Reuven (Ruvi) Ziegler

University of Reading School of Law; Refugee Studies Centre; Refugee Law Initiative; University of Johannesburg Faculty of Law

Date Written: July 1, 2014


This article considers whether, in the context of armed conflicts, certain non-refoulement obligations of non-belligerent States can be derived from the 1949 Geneva Conventions. According to Common Article 1 (CA1) thereof, all High Contracting Parties (HCPs) undertake to ‘respect and to ensure respect’ for the four conventions ‘in all circumstances’. It is contended that CA1 applies both in international armed conflicts (IACs) and in non-international armed conflicts (NIACs). In turn, it is suggested that Common Article 3 (CA3) which regulates conduct in NIACs serves as a ‘minimum yardstick’ also applicable in IACs.

It is widely (though not uniformly) acknowledged that the undertaking to ‘ensure respect’ in a given armed conflict extends to HCPs that are not parties to it; nevertheless, the precise scope of this undertaking is subject to scholarly debate. This article concerns situations where, in the course of an (international or non-international) armed conflict, persons ’taking no active part in hostilities’ flee from States where violations of CA3 are (likely to be) occurring to a non-belligerent State. Based on the undertaking in CA1, the central claim of this article is that, as long as risk of exposure to these violations persists, persons should not be refouled notwithstanding possible assessment of whether they qualify as refugees based on the 1951 Refugee Convention definition, or could be eligible for complementary or subsidiary forms of protection that are regulated in regional arrangements. The analysis does not affect the explicit protection from refoulement that the Fourth Geneva Convention accords to ‘protected persons’ (as defined in Article 4 thereof).

It is submitted that CA1 should be read in tandem with other obligations of non-belligerent States under the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Most pertinently, all HCPs are required to take specific measures to repress ‘grave breaches’ and to take measures necessary for the suppression of all acts contrary to the 1949 Geneva Conventions other than the grave breaches. A HCP that is capable of protecting displaced persons from exposure to risks of violations of CA3 and nonetheless refoules them to face such risks is arguably failing to take lawful measures at its disposal in order to suppress acts contrary to the conventions and, consequently, fails to ‘ensure respect’ for the conventions.

Keywords: Non-refoulement, International Armed Conflict, Non-International Armed Conflict, Common Article 1, Common Article 3

Suggested Citation

Ziegler, Reuven, Non-Refoulement between ‘Common Article 1’ and ‘Common Article 3’ (July 1, 2014). in David J. Cantor and Jean-Francois Durieux (eds), Refuge from Inhumanity? War Refugees and International Humanitarian Law (Brill, 2014) 386-408, Available at SSRN:

Reuven Ziegler (Contact Author)

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