What Are the Geneva Conventions?

World War II. Geneva, Palais du Conseil Général. Central Prisoners of War Agency. The Geneva Conventions also provide detailed rules on the treatment of Prisoners of War. Credit: ICRC

World War II. Geneva, Palais du Conseil Général. Central Prisoners of War Agency. The Geneva Conventions also provide detailed rules on the treatment of Prisoners of War. Credit: ICRC

Before she came to be the Capital of Peace she is today, the city of Geneva was the cradle of a movement toward humanitarian ideals that would shape the world. In the late 1850s, two empires collided just south of Switzerland. Commanded by Napoleon III, the Imperial French Army and its ally, the Kingdom of Sardinia, waged a fearsome battle against the advancing troops of the Austrian Emperor. Close to 300,000 troops met on the battlefield in Solferino and 40,000 of them were killed or wounded.

Geneva businessman Henry Dunant witnessed the aftermath of the grim Battle of Solferino. The sight of the thousands of wounded soldiers left with little medical aid and facilities horrified him so much that upon his return to Geneva, Henry Dunant proposed the creation of a permanent relief agency for humanitarian aid in times of war and a set of laws to protect the agency and its mission; to provide medical assistance in war zones. The agency was called the Red Cross, a reference to the one displayed on the Swiss flag, and the set of laws came to be known as the Geneva Conventions.

The Conventions were first adopted at international conferences in Geneva and at The Hague in 1864. The unspeakable horrors of World War II that claimed the lives of millions of civilians demonstrated the need to strengthen the provisions even further. An international conference in Geneva chaired by Federal Councillor Max Petitpierre drafted the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. They were supplemented by two Additional Protocols in 1977, and a third in 2005. Together, the four Conventions and the three Additional Protocols form the core of international humanitarian law.

The Geneva Conventions legally protect hospital ships such as the USNS Comfort.

The Geneva Conventions legally protect hospital ships such as the USNS Comfort.

The Geneva Conventions seek to protect civilians who are not involved in armed conflict and the sick, injured, shipwrecked, or surrendered members of armed forces who are no longer taking part in the hostilities. Among other things, they state that the wounded and the sick should be cared for, and they prohibit acts of violence, torture, and humiliation toward those not taking part in armed conflict. The Geneva Conventions also provide detailed rules on the treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs) and prohibit attacks against civilians and civilian objects. Breaches of the Conventions can lead to charges of war crimes.

Today, the four Geneva Conventions have been universally ratified. Their rules and those of the Additional Protocols of 1977 are to a great extent regarded as customary international law, binding on all states and all parties to conflicts.



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