When it comes to war, we all know that it can be fierce and hideous, particularly in terms of compliance with humanitarian rights. However, what a lot of people don’t understand is that even during war, there must be a specific code of conduct for the armies or legions of war. The Geneva Convention does exactly this. It is a set of four treaties and three protocols that are established as international law for humanitarian treatment during times of war. Before we get into the nuances of what the Geneva Convention lays out, let’s take a brief look at the history of how the convention was set in motion.
The conception of the Geneva Convention was conceived by a Swedish businessman named Henry Dunant. When Henry Dunant visited the Battle of Solferino in1859, he was mortified by the horrific conditions of the wounded soldiers. What shocked him was the lack of facilities, personnel and medical aid available to these soldiers. In lieu of the deplorable conditions of war, Henry Dunant went on to write a book known as A memory of Solferino, which described in detail all the tragedies he had witnessed. The scenes of the Solferino War also prompted him to make two revolutionary proposals. The first was that there must be a permanent relief agency in times of war for humanitarian aid. The second is a government treaty recognizing the neutrality of the agency and allowing it to provide relief in war-torn areas.
The former proposal led to the formation of the Red Cross, while the latter of the two proposals led to the establishment of the Geneva Convention in 1864. The Geneva Convention of 1864 is the first codified international treaty that covered for the care of the sick and wounded on battlefields. It was on August 24, 1864, that the Swiss government invited all the European governments, along with the United States, Brazil and Mexico to attend the official diplomatic conference. This was hailed as the First Geneva Convention, and the main topic of deliberation at this particular convention was “the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.” For the inception of the Red Cross and the organization of the Geneva Convention, Henry Dunant was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize in history!
The Four Conventions
Subsequent attempts to expand and refine the laws present in the Geneva Convention proved to be a failure. However, despite initial failures, later editions to improve it proved to be successful. Inspired by the wave of humanitarian and pacifistic enthusiasm following World War II and the outrage towards the war crimes disclosed by the Nuremberg Trials, a series of conferences were held in 1949 that reaffirmed, expanded and updated the prior Geneva and Hague Conventions. It yielded four distinct conventions:
- The First Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field.” This Convention represents the fourth updated version of the Geneva Convention for the wounded and sick, following those adopted in 1864, 1906 and 1929. It contains 64 articles. These provide protection for the wounded and sick, but also medical and religious personnel, medical units and medical transports. The Convention also recognizes distinctive emblems. It has two annexes containing a draft agreement relating to hospital zones and a model identity card for medical and religious personnel.
- The Second Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea.” This Convention replaced the Hague Convention of 1907 for the Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention. It was very similar to the provisions of the first Geneva Convention in structure and content. It contains 63 articles that are specifically applicable to war at sea. For example, it protects hospital ships. It has one annex containing a model identity card for medical and religious personnel.
- The Third Geneva Convention “relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War” replaced replaced the Prisoners of War Convention of 1929. It contains 143 articles, whereas the 1929 Convention had only 97. The categories of individuals entitled to prisoner of war status were broadened from the previous two conventions. The conditions and places in which captives were to be kept were laid down explicitly, making it clear what conditions they must be kept in. The convention was particularly concerned with the labor of prisoners of war, their financial resources, the relief they receive, and the judicial proceedings instituted against them. The Convention establishes the principle that prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities. The Convention has five annexes containing various model regulations and identity and other cards.
- In addition to the previous three conventions, the conference also added a new elaborate Fourth Geneva Convention, which was referenced as being “relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.” The Geneva Convention adopted in 1949 was concerned with combatants only and not the civilians of the respective war participants. The events of World War II showed the disastrous consequences of the absence of a convention for the protection of civilians in wartime. The Convention adopted in 1949 takes into account the experiences of World War II. The bulk of the Convention deals with the status and treatment of protected persons, distinguishing between the situation of foreigners in the territory of one of the parties to the conflict and that of civilians in occupied territory. It spells out the obligations of the Occupying Power, which relates to treatment of the civilian population and contains detailed provisions on humanitarian relief for communities in occupied territory. It also includes a specific regime for the treatment of civilian internees.
The Geneva Conventions entered into force on October 21, 1950 on an international scale. Ratification grew steadily through the decades: 74 States ratified the Conventions during the 1950s, 48 States did so during the 1960s, 20 States signed on during the 1970s, and another 20 States did so during the 1980s. Twenty-six countries ratified the Conventions in the early 1990s, largely in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and the former Yugoslavia. Seven new ratifications since 2000 have brought the total number of States Parties to 194, making the Geneva Conventions universally applicable.