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The Geneva Conventions consist of four treaties and three additional protocols that set the standards in international law for humanitarian treatment of the victims of war. The singular term Geneva Convention refers to the agreements of 1949, negotiated in the aftermath of World War II, updating the terms of the first three treaties and adding a fourth treaty. The language is extensive, with articles defining the basic rights of those captured during a military conflict, establishing protections for the wounded, and addressing protections for civilians in and around a war zone. The treaties of 1949 have been ratified, in whole or with reservations, by 194 countries.

The Geneva Conventions do not address the use of weapons of war,as this is covered by the Hague Conventions and the Geneva Protocol.


In 1862, Henri Dunant published his book, Memoir of Solferino, on the horrors of war. His wartime experiences inspired Dunant to propose (1) a permanent relief agency for humanitarian aid in times of war, and (2) 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 Crossmarker. The latter led to the First Geneva Convention. For both of these accomplishments, Henri Dunant became corecipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

The ten articles of this first treaty were initially adopted in 1864 by twelve nations. Clara Barton was instrumental in campaigning for the ratification of the First Geneva Convention by the United Statesmarker, which eventually ratified it in 1882.

The second treaty was first adopted in 1906 and specifically addressed members of the Armed Forces at sea. The third treaty was first adopted in 1929 to deal with the protection of prisoners of war. The fourth treaty was inspired by the war criminals of the Nuremburg Trialsmarker and first adopted in 1949. It reaffirmed the prior three treaties and added many new terms, including the protection of civilians during wartime.

Despite the length of these documents, they were found over time to be incomplete. In 1977, two protocols were adopted that extended the terms of the 1949 treaty with additional protections. In 2005, a third brief protocol was added establishing an additional protective sign for medical services, as an alternative to the ubiquitous Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, for those countries that find them objectionable.

The conventions and their agreements

The Geneva Conventions comprise rules that apply in times of armed conflict and seek to protect people who are not or are no longer taking part in hostilities, for example:
  • wounded or sick fighters
  • prisoners of war
  • civilians
  • medical and religious personnel


In diplomacy, the term convention does not have its common meaning as an assembly of people. Rather, it is used in diplomacy to mean an international agreement, or treaty. The first three Geneva Conventions were revised and expanded in 1949, and the fourth was added at that time.

The whole set is referred to as the "Geneva Conventions of 1949" or simply the "Geneva Convention".


The 1949 conventions have been modified with three amendment protocols:
  • Protocol I (1977) relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts
  • Protocol II (1977) relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts
  • Protocol III (2005) relating to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem (for medical services)


The Geneva Conventions apply at times of war and armed conflict to governments who have ratified its terms. The details of applicability are spelled out in Common Articles 2 and 3.The reader should recognize the controversial nature of the topic of applicability. When the Geneva Conventions apply, governments must surrender a certain degree of their national sovereignty to comply with international law. These laws may not be entirely harmonious with their national constitution or their cultural values. Despite the advantages offered by the Conventions to individuals, political pressures may cause the governments to be reluctant in accepting its responsibilities.

Common Article 2

This article states that the Geneva Conventions apply to all cases of international conflict, where at least one of the warring nations have ratified the Conventions. Primarily:

  • The Conventions apply to all cases of declared war between signatory nations. This is the original sense of applicability, which predates the 1949 version.
  • The Conventions apply to all cases of armed conflict between two or more signatory nations, even in the absence of a declaration of war. This language was added in 1949 to accommodate situations that have all the characteristics of war without the existence of a formal declaration of war, such as a police action.
  • The Conventions apply to a signatory nation even if the opposing nation is not bound by it. By 1949, the treaty was becoming viewed less as a reciprocal contract and more as an agreement on fundamental human rights. Ratifying the treaty binds the nation to uphold these rights regardless of the behavior of the opposing nation.

Article 1 of Protocol I further clarifies that armed conflict against colonial domination and foreign occupation also qualifies as an international conflict.

When the criteria of international conflict have been met, the full protections of the Conventions are considered to apply.

Common Article 3

This article states that the certain minimum rules of war also apply to armed conflicts that are not of an international character, but that are contained within the boundaries of a single country. The applicability of this article rests on the interpretation of the term armed conflict. For example it would apply to conflicts between the Government and rebel forces, or between two rebel forces, or to other conflicts that have all the characteristics of war but that are carried out within the confines of a single country. A handful of individuals attacking a police station would not be considered an armed conflict subject to this article, but only subject to the laws of the country in question.

The provisions of the entire Geneva Convention are not applicable in this situation, but only a limited list of provisions contained within the language of Article 3, and additionally within the language of Protocol II. The rationale for the limitation is that many articles would otherwise conflict with the rights of a Sovereign State. In summary:
  • Persons taking no active part in hostilities should be treated humanely (including military persons who have ceased to be active as a result of sickness, injury, or detention).
  • The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for


Protecting powers

The term protecting power has a specific meaning under these Conventions. A protecting power is a state that is not taking part in the armed conflict, but that has agreed to look after the interests of a state that is a party to the conflict. The protecting power is a mediator enabling the flow of communication between the parties to the conflict. The protecting power also monitors implementation of these Conventions, such as by visiting the zone of conflict and prisoners of war. The protecting power must act as an advocate for prisoners, the wounded, and civilians.

Grave Breaches

Not all violations of the treaty are treated equally. The most serious crimes are termed grave breaches, and provide a legal definition of a war crime. Grave breaches of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions include the following acts if committed against a person protected by the convention:

  • willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments
  • willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health
  • compelling one to serve in the forces of a hostile power
  • willfully depriving one of the right to a fair trial.

Also considered grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention are the following:

  • taking of hostages
  • extensive destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly
  • unlawful deportation, transfer, or confinement.

Nations who are party to these treaties must enact and enforce legislation penalizing any of these crimes. Nations are also obligated to search for persons alleged to commit these crimes, or ordered them to be committed, and to bring them to trial regardless of their nationality and regardless of the place where the crimes took place.

The principle of universal jurisdiction also applies to the enforcement of grave breaches. Toward this end, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwandamarker and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslaviamarker were established by the United Nations to prosecute alleged violations. Israel is accused of war crimes based on their apparent commitment of grave breaches.

The Geneva Conventions Today

Although warfare has changed dramatically since the Geneva Conventions of 1949, they are still considered the cornerstone of contemporary International Humanitarian Law. They protect combatants who find themselves hors de combat, and they protect civilians caught up in the zone of war. These treaties came into play for all recent international armed conflicts, including the War in Afghanistan , the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the 2008 War in Georgia.

Modern warfare continues to evolve, and a growing proportion of recent armed conflicts are of a non-international character (for instance, the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Sudanese Civil War, and the Colombian Armed Conflict). Common Article 3 deals with these situations,supplemented by Protocol II (1977). These set out minimum legal standards that must be followed for internal conflicts. International tribunals, particularly the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslaviamarker, have helped to clarify international law in this area. In the 1999 Prosecutor v. Dusko Tadic judgement, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia ruled that grave breaches apply not only to international conflicts, but also to internal armed conflict. Further, those provisions are considered customary international law, allowing war crimes prosecution even over groups that have not formally accepted the terms of the Geneva Conventions.

See also


  1. English version, full text online.
  2. The story of an idea, film on the creation of the Red Cross, Red Crescent Movement and the Geneva Conventions
  3. The original twelve original countries were Switzerland, Baden, Belgium, Denmark, France, Hesse, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Prussia, Spain, and Wurtemburg.
  4. How "grave breaches" are defined in the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols, International Committee of the Red Cross.
  5. For example, the War Crimes Act of 1996.

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