Geneva Conventions

The signing of the first-ever Geneva Convention by some of the major European powers in 1864
The signing of the first Geneva Convention in 1864

The Geneva Conventions and their subsequent protocols are a series of four treaties regarding the fundamental rules of humanitarian concerns of soldiers and noncombatants during warfare. They were first established in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1864. In addition, there are three protocols added to the Geneva Conventions that prohibit certain methods of warfare and deal with issues regarding civil wars.

The first Geneva Convention dealt exclusively with the care of wounded soldiers on the battlefield and was later amended to cover warfare at sea and prisoners of war. The Red Cross, an international philanthropic organization, was formed because of the First Geneva Convention. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was instrumental in campaigning for the ratification of the first Geneva Convention by the United States, which signed it in 1882.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), under the first Geneva Convention, chapter 1, article 3, was recognized as an impartial humanitarian body permitted to offer its services during conflicts, and its emblem would be recognized as a neutral organization to parties to the conflict. This was later amended to include the emblems of the International Red Crescent and the Red Lion and Sun humanitarian organizations.

In brief the seven fundamental rules that form the tenets of the Geneva Conventions and protocols are:
  1. Civilians not taking part in the conflict are entitled to respect for their lives and their moral and physical integrity; and shall in all instances be treated humanely.
  2. It is forbidden to kill or injure an enemy who surrenders.
  3. The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for by the party to the conflict that has them in their power. Protection also covers medical personnel, establishments, transports, and equipment. The Red Cross and Red Crescent are two signs of such protection and must be respected.
  4. Captured combatants and civilians are entitled to respect for their lives, dignity, personal rights, and convictions. They shall be protected against acts of violence and have the right to correspond with their families and to receive relief.
  5. Everyone shall have the right to fundamental judicial guarantees. No one shall be subjected to physical or mental torture, corporal punishment, or cruel or degrading treatment.
  6. It is prohibited to employ weapons that would produce unnecessary or extreme losses or excessive suffering.
  7. Civilians shall be protected from attack and not the subject of attack. Attacks shall be directed solely against military objectives.

In 1949 each convention was revised and ratified after the horrific loss of human life in World War II. These revisions had their basis in part in the 1899 and 1907 Hague Peace Conferences, which were initiated by Russian czar Nicholas II to discuss peace and disarmament during the Japanese-Russian conflicts. The original Hague Peace Conferences led to the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the precursor to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations.