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The Fourth Geneva Convention, for the protection of civilian persons in time of war, is one of the four treaties of the Geneva Conventions. It was adopted in 1949 and eventually ratified by 194 countries. It defines humanitarian protections for civilians in a war zone, and outlaws the practice of total war.

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 that is binding on non-signatory parties whenever they engage in armed conflicts.

Part I. General Provisions

This sets out the overall parameters for GCIV:
  • 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.
  • 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: noncombatants, 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 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. But 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.

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

Part II. General Protection of Populations Against Certain Consequences of War

Article 13. The provisions of Part II cover the whole of the populations of the countries in conflict, 'without any adverse distinction based, in particular, on race, nationality, religion or political opinion, and are intended to alleviate the sufferings caused by war.

Part III. Status and Treatment of Protected Persons

Section I. Provisions common to the territories of the parties to the conflict and to occupied territories

Article 32. A protected person/s shall not have anything done to them of such a character as to cause physical suffering or extermination ... the physical suffering or extermination of protected persons in their hands. This prohibition applies not only to murder, torture, corporal punishments, mutilation and medical or scientific experiments not necessitated by the medical treatment'While popular debate remains on what constitutes a legal definition of torture (see discussion on the Torture page), the ban on corporal punishment simplifies the matter; even the most mundane physical abuse is thereby forbidden by Article 32, as a precaution against alternate definitions of torture.

The prohibition on scientific experiments was added, in part, in response to experiments by Germanmarker and Japanesemarker doctors during World War II, of whom Josef Mengele was the most infamous.

Collective punishments

Article 33. No 'protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.
Pillage is prohibited.

Reprisals against 'protected persons and their property are prohibited.

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions collective punishments are a war crime. By collective punishment, the drafters of the Geneva Conventions had in mind the reprisal killings of World Wars I and World War II. In the First World War, Germans executed Belgianmarker villagers in mass retribution for resistance activity. In World War II, Nazis carried out a form of collective punishment to suppress resistance. Entire villages or towns or districts were held responsible for any resistance activity that took place there. The conventions, to counter this, reiterated the principle of individual responsibility. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Commentary to the conventions states that parties to a conflict often would resort to "intimidatory measures to terrorize the population" in hopes of preventing hostile acts, but such practices "strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice."

Additional Protocol II of 1977 explicitly forbids collective punishment. But as fewer states have ratified this protocol than GCIV, GCIV Article 33. is the one more commonly quoted.

Section III. Occupied territories

Articles 47-78 impose substantial obligations on occupying powers. As well as numerous provisions for the general welfare of the inhabitants of an occupied territory, an occupier may not forcibly deport protected persons, or deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into occupied territory (Art.49).

Part IV. Execution of the Convention

This part contains "the formal or diplomatic provisions which it is customary to place at the end of an international Convention to settle the procedure for bringing it into effect are grouped together under this heading (1). They are similar in all four Geneva Conventions of 1949."ICRC Commentary: Part IV : Execution of the convention #Section II : Final provisions, Retrieved 2008-10-28


The ICRC commentary on the Fourth Geneva convention states that when the establishment of hospital and safety zones in occupied territories were discussed reference was made to a draft agreement and it was agreed to append it as an annex I to the Fourth Geneva Convention.ICRC Commentary: Annex I : Draft agreement relating to hospital and safety zones and localities, Retrieved 2008-10-28

The ICRC states that "the Draft Agreement has only been put forward to States as a model, but the fact that it as carefully drafted at the Diplomatic Conference, which finally adopted it, gives it a very real value. It could usefully be taken as a working basis, therefore, whenever a hospital zone is to be established."

The ICRC states that Annex II is a "...draft which, according to Article 109 (paragraph 1) of the Convention, will be applied in the absence of special agreements between the Parties, deals with the conditions for the receipt and distribution of collective relief shipments. It is based on the traditions of the International Committee of the Red Cross which submitted it, and on the experience the Committee gained during the Second World War."ICRC Commentary: Annex II : Draft regulations concerning collective relief, Retrieved 2008-10-28

Annex III contains an example internment card, letter and correspondence card:ICRC Commentary: Annex III Model internment cards, letters and correspondence cards, Retrieved 2008-10-28
  1. An example internment card with dimensions of 10x15 cm.
  2. An example letter with dimensions of 29x15 cm.
  3. An example correspondence card with dimensions of 10x15 cm.

See also


  1. see Report Of The Secretary-General on the Statute of the Tribunal


Further reading

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