Geneva Conventions

The Geneva Convention: the signature-and-seals page of the 1864 Geneva Convention, that established humane rules of war.
Original document as PDF in single pages, 1864

The Geneva Conventions comprise four treaties, and three additional protocols, that establish the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment in war. The singular term Geneva Convention usually denotes the agreements of 1949, negotiated in the aftermath of the Second World War (1939–45), which updated the terms of the two 1929 treaties, and added two new conventions. The Geneva Conventions extensively defined the basic rights of wartime prisoners (civilians and military personnel), established protections for the wounded and sick, and established protections for the civilians in and around a war-zone. The treaties of 1949 were ratified, in whole or with reservations, by 196 countries.[1] Moreover, the Geneva Convention also defines the rights and protections afforded to non-combatants, yet, because the Geneva Conventions are about people in war, the articles do not address warfare proper—the use of weapons of war—which is the subject of the Hague Conventions (First Hague Conference, 1899; Second Hague Conference 1907), and the bio-chemical warfare Geneva Protocol (Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, 1925).


Progression of Geneva Conventions from 1864 to 1949.
Red Cross poster from the First World War.

The Swiss businessman Henry Dunant went to visit wounded soldiers after the Battle of Solferino in 1859. He was shocked by the lack of facilities, personnel, and medical aid available to help these soldiers. As a result, he published his book, A Memory of Solferino, in 1862, on the horrors of war.[2] His wartime experiences inspired Dunant to propose:

  • A permanent relief agency for humanitarian aid in times of war
  • A government treaty recognizing the neutrality of the agency and allowing it to provide aid in a war zone

The former proposal led to the establishment of the Red Cross in Geneva. The latter led to the 1864 Geneva Convention, the first codified international treaty that covered the sick and wounded soldiers in the battlefield. On 22 August 1864, the Swiss government invited the governments of all European countries, as well as the United States, Brazil, and Mexico, to attend an official diplomatic conference. Sixteen countries sent a total of twenty-six delegates to Geneva. On 22 August 1864, the conference adopted the first Geneva Convention "for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field". Representatives of 12 states and kingdoms signed the convention:[3][4]

For both of these accomplishments, Henry Dunant became corecipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.[5][6]

On 20 October 1868 the first, unsuccessful, attempt to expand the 1864 treaty was undertaken. With the 'Additional Articles relating to the Condition of the Wounded in War' an attempt was undertaken to clarify some rules of the 1864 convention and to extend them to maritime warfare. The Articles were signed but never ratified by all parties. Only the Netherlands and the United States ratified the Articles.[7] The Netherlands later withdrew their ratification.[8] The protection of the victims of maritime warfare would later be realized by the third Hague Convention of 1899 and the tenth Hague Convention of 1907.[9]

In 1906 thirty-five states attended a conference convened by the Swiss government. On 6 July 1906 it resulted in the adoption of the "Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armies in the Field", which improved and supplemented, for the first time, the 1864 convention.[10] It remained in force until 1970 when Costa Rica acceded to the 1949 Geneva Conventions.[11]

The 1929 conference yielded two conventions that were signed on 27 July 1929. One, the "Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armies in the Field", was the third version to replace the original convention of 1864.[12][9] The other was adopted after experiences in World War I had shown the deficiencies in the protection of prisoners of war under the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. The "Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War" was not to replace these earlier conventions signed at The Hague, rather it supplemented them.[13][14]

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 reaffirming, expanding and updating 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" was the fourth update of the original 1864 convention and replaced the 1929 convention on the same subject matter.[15]
  • The Second Geneva Convention "for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea" replaced the Hague Convention (X) of 1907.[16] It was the first Geneva Convention on the protection of the victims of maritime warfare and mimicked the structure and provisions of the First Geneva Convention.[9]
  • The Third Geneva Convention "relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War" replaced the 1929 Geneva Convention that dealt with prisoners of war.[17]
  • In addition to these three conventions, the conference also added a new elaborate Fourth Geneva Convention "relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War". It was the first Geneva Convention not to deal with combatants, rather it had the protection of civilians as its subject matter. The 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions had already contained some provisions on the protection of civilians and occupied territory. Article 154 specifically provides that the Fourth Geneva Convention is supplementary to these provisions in the Hague Conventions.[18]
The third protocol emblem, also known as the Red Crystal

Despite the length of these documents, they were found over time to be incomplete. In fact, the very nature of armed conflicts had changed with the beginning of the Cold War era, leading many to believe that the 1949 Geneva Conventions were addressing a largely extinct reality:[19] on the one hand, most armed conflicts had become internal, or civil wars, while on the other, most wars had become increasingly asymmetric. Moreover, modern armed conflicts were inflicting an increasingly higher toll on civilians, which brought the need to provide civilian persons and objects with tangible protections in time of combat, thus bringing a much needed update to the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. In light of these developments, two Protocols were adopted in 1977 that extended the terms of the 1949 Conventions with additional protections. In 2005, a third brief Protocol was added establishing an additional protective sign for medical services, the Red Crystal, as an alternative to the ubiquitous Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, for those countries that find them objectionable.


The Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949. Commentary (The Commentaries) is a series of four volumes of books published between 1952 and 1958 and containing commentaries to each of the four Geneva Conventions. The series was edited by Jean Pictet who was the vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Commentaries are often relied upon to provide authoritative interpretation of the articles.[20]

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Simple English: Geneva Conventions
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