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Dictionary of Vexillology: Appendix II

International Customs Regarding the Placing and Handling of Flags

Last modified: 2006-08-12 by phil nelson
Keywords: vexillological terms |
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Position of Honour (or Honor)

In brief the rules regarding the position of honour are as follows:

1) In a row of national flags the position of honour is that on the left of the observer with the remaining national flags present being disposed in alphabetic order according to the principle language of the host country.
2) In a circle of flags the position of honour is the pole immediately opposite the main entrance of the venue with the other national flags present being disposed in alphabetic order according to the principal language of the host country, starting at the left (or in a clock-wise direction) from the position of honour when looking outward from the venue entrance..
3) In a semi-circle of flags the position of honour is at the centre of the semi-circle with the other national flags disposed alternately on either side in alphabetic order according to the principal language of the host country..
4) When two national flags are crossed, the position of honour is on the left of the observer with the staff of the host country’s flag placed over that of the other..
5) On parade or in a procession, the position of honour is at the head in a single file, or on the right of a line-abreast formation, with any other national flags present being again be ordered alphabetically as described above.


The precedence of the different categories of flags is generally as follows:

1) In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and some other countries, the flag of the Head of State takes precedence; but in all other cases the sequence is a follows:
2) The national flag of the country concerned;
3) Other national flags in local alphabetical order;
4) Supra-national and super-national flags;
5) The flag of a state, province or county;
6) Civic flags;
7) Commercial and/or private flags;
8) The only exception to 2) and 3) above occurs during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, where the competing teams march under their respective flags in alphabetical order in the language of the host country with Greece (if present) marching first and the team of the host country marching last.

Rules of Etiquette

In brief the rules of etiquette are as follows:

1) National flags are of equal seniority, but see 2) below.
2) Within the territory of a particular country, the national flag of that country should always occupy the position of honour - see 'position of honour'.
3) National flags flying at permanent international venues (for example at the UN headquarters in New York and in Geneva) are disposed alphabetically in the principal language of the host country.
4) At temporary international gatherings or events, flags can be displayed on poles erected in line, or in a circle, or in a semi-circle, and rules 2 and 3) apply, but with the host national flag occupying the position of honour.

Rules of Respect

The most important aspect of these rules - the Golden Rule - is that the national flag must at all times be treated with dignity and respect. Persons responsible for the handling of the national flag should ensure that the dignity of the flag, and the state it represents as expressed in the flying of the flag, are properly upheld by keeping the following specific rules: The flag must not:

1) Be allowed to touch the ground, floor or deck whilst being hoisted or lowered.
2) Be used as a table covering, or be draped in front of a platform.
3) Be used to cover a statue, plaque, corner stone etc., at unveiling or similar ceremonies.
4) Be used to start or to finish any sporting competition, or similar event.

General Rules

Generally persons, who have official responsibility for the handling of national flags, or private individuals flying the national flag, should further ensure that they are conversant with these rules of respect and ensure that the following measures and rules are complied with.

5) The national flag should always be hoisted at the start of a working day (at a regulated time after the sun has risen), and struck again at or before sunset.
6) When the national flag is lowered at the end of the day, it should be neatly folded and safely stowed (preferably in a receptacle specially provided for the purpose) until required again.
7) The national flag should usually not remain hoisted ashore at night in the dark. If it is required to remain hoisted after dark, it should be artificially illuminated. However, naval vessels are obliged to keep their ensigns flying at all times and in all weather conditions while at sea, in order to identify themselves as required by international law.
8) Whenever a person should observe a ceremonial hoisting or lowering ceremony in progress, that person should show respect by coming to attention when on foot, and salute the flag by removing his hat, if worn, or possibly by placing the right hand over the heart. Ladies need not remove their hats, but should also salute with the hand over the heart or as required by local custom. They should remain so until the ceremony has clearly been completed through the flag having been fully hoisted or struck. If in a moving vehicle, the driver should stop, provided it is safe to do so, and remain stopped until the ceremony is over. Persons in uniform should salute the flag in the manner prescribed by their Service.
9) The national flag should never be depicted or flown upside down if its design prescribes which side should be uppermost. At worst (and under normal circumstances) this is considered a gross insult to the flag, and at best, a display of abysmal ignorance on the part of the person, authority, or institution responsible. The only exception to this rule is at sea under exceptional circumstances (see ‘flag of distress’).
10) The national flag should not be made up into intimate items of clothing or used as floor, bath or tablemats, or used in any other similar demeaning manner. This rule does not prohibit the national colours being used for the manufacture of items of outer wear, provided it does not purport to represent the flag directly. Depictions of the actual flag may, (according to the regulations and customs in most countries today), however, be used as patches on clothing and hats or printed on T-shirts and similar items (see also ‘flag patch’).
11) The national flag should never be desecrated by placing any charge, drawing, slogan or writing of any kind, directly on the field of the flag, which is not part of its officially approved design. This applies equally to the process of manufacture or to any other medium wherein the flag may be depicted.
12) The national flag should not be used for any commercial advertising in a manner that will distort or show disrespect to the flag.
13) Frayed, discoloured or damaged flags should never hoisted or be allowed to remain flying, but should be replaced at the first opportunity.
14) Frayed or broken halyards, even if not in use, on the same mast as the one flying the national flag should also be repaired or removed as demeaning to the dignity of the flag.
15) Weathered, peeling or damaged flag masts or poles should not to be allowed to bear the national flag, as being demeaning to its dignity.

Rules of Preservation and Disposal

16) Flags not in use should be carefully rolled or folded and placed in a receptacle specially provided for the purpose.
17) Wet flags should be properly dried before being stowed away as they may otherwise become discoloured or mildewed.
18) Persons responsible for the handling of flags must decide on their own responsibility whether to replace the normal standard flag with the storm flag in the event of inclement weather, in order to prevent possible damage to the flag, halyards or flag pole.
19) Flags that have become unfit for further use should be returned to the issuing authority for repair in the case of official flags, or, if privately owned, and if they are beyond economical repair, they should be destroyed by burning or pulping. They should never be sold to be used as rags.