Fourth Geneva Convention

Warsaw 1939 refugees and soldier

The Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, commonly referred to as the Fourth Geneva Convention and abbreviated as GCIV, is one of the four treaties of the Geneva Conventions. It was adopted in August 1949. While the first three conventions dealt with combatants, the Fourth Geneva Convention was the first to deal with humanitarian protections for civilians in a war zone. There are currently 196 countries party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, including this and the other three treaties.[1]

In 1993, the United Nations Security Council adopted a report from the Secretary-General and a Commission of Experts which concluded that the Geneva Conventions had passed into the body of customary international law, thus making them binding on non-signatories to the Conventions whenever they engage in armed conflicts.[2]

Part I. General Provisions

  Parties to GC I–IV and P I–III
  Parties to GC I–IV and P I–II
  Parties to GC I–IV and P I and III
  Parties to GC I–IV and P I
  Parties to GC I–IV and P III
  Parties to GC I–IV and no P

This sets out the overall parameters for GCIV:

Article 2: Application of the Convention

Article 2 states that signatories are bound by the convention both in war, armed conflicts where war has not been declared, and in an occupation of another country's territory.

In addition to the provisions which shall be implemented in peacetime, the present Convention shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them.

The scope of article 2 is broad:

Although one of the Powers in conflict may not be a party to the present Convention, the Powers who are parties thereto shall remain bound by it in their mutual relations.

In the commentary to the article Jean Pictet writes:

They [conventions] are coming to be regarded less and less as contracts concluded on a basis of reciprocity in the national interests of the parties and more and more as a solemn affirmation of principles respected for their own sake, a series of unconditional engagements on the part of each of the Contracting Parties ' vis-à-vis ' the others.[3]

Article 3: Conflicts not of an international character

Article 3 states that even where there is not a conflict of international character, the parties must as a minimum adhere to minimal protections described as: non-combatants, members of armed forces who have laid down their arms, and combatants who are hors de combat (out of the fight) due to wounds, detention, or any other cause shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, with the following prohibitions:

  • (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
  • (b) taking of hostages;
  • (c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
  • (d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

Article 4: Definition of protected persons

Article 4 defines who is a protected person:

Persons protected by the Convention are those who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals.

It explicitly excludes "Nationals of a State which is not bound by the Convention" and the citizens of a neutral state or an allied state if that state has normal diplomatic relations "within the State in whose hands they are".

A number of articles specify how protecting powers, ICRC and other humanitarian organizations may aid protected persons.

The definition of protected person in this article is arguably the most important article in this section because many of the articles in the rest of GCIV only apply to protected persons.

Article 5: Derogations

Article 5 provides for the suspension of persons' rights under the Convention for the duration of time that this is "prejudicial to the security of such State", although "such persons shall nevertheless be treated with humanity and, in case of trial, shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed by the present Convention."

The common interpretation of article 5 is that its scope is very limited.[4] Derogation is limited to individuals "definitely suspected of" or "engaged in activities hostile to the security of the State." In paragraph two of the article, "spy or saboteur" is mentioned.