LAST UPDATED: Mar 4, 2020 See Article History
Geneva Conventions, a series of international treaties concluded in Geneva between 1864 and 1949 for the purpose of ameliorating the effects of war on soldiers and civilians. Two additional protocols to the 1949 agreement were approved in 1977.Geneva Conventions
- 1864 – 1977
The development of the Geneva Conventions was closely associated with the Red Cross, whose founder, Henri Dunant, initiated international negotiations that produced the Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded in Time of War in 1864. This convention provided for (1) the immunity from capture and destruction of all establishments for the treatment of wounded and sick soldiers and their personnel, (2) the impartial reception and treatment of all combatants, (3) the protection of civilians providing aid to the wounded, and (4) the recognition of the Red Cross symbol as a means of identifying persons and equipment covered by the agreement.READ MORE ON THIS TOPICwar crime: Geneva conventionsAfter the Nürnberg and Tokyo trials, numerous international treaties and conventions attempted to devise…
The 1864 convention was ratified within three years by all the major European powers as well as by many other states. It was amended and extended by the second Geneva Convention in 1906, and its provisions were applied to maritime warfare through the Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907. The third Geneva Convention, the Convention Relating to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (1929), required that belligerents treat prisoners of war humanely, furnish information about them, and permit official visits to prison camps by representatives of neutral states.
Because some belligerents in World War II had abused the principles contained in earlier conventions, an International Red Cross conference in Stockholm in 1948 extended and codified the existing provisions. The conference developed four conventions, which were approved in Geneva on August 12, 1949: (1) the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, (2) the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick, and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea, (3) the Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, and (4) the Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.Get exclusive access to content from our 1768 First Edition with your subscription.Subscribe today
The first two conventions elaborated on the principle that the sick and wounded have neutral status. The prisoner-of-war convention further developed the 1929 convention by requiring humane treatment, adequate feeding, and the delivery of relief supplies and by forbidding pressure on prisoners to supply more than a minimum of information. The fourth convention contained little that had not been established in international law before World War II. Although the convention was not original, the disregard of humanitarian principles during the war made the restatement of its principles particularly important and timely. The convention forbade inter alia the deportation of individuals or groups, the taking of hostages, torture, collective punishment, offenses that constitute “outrages upon personal dignity,” the imposition of judicial sentences (including executions) without due-process guarantees, and discriminatory treatment on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs.
In the decades following World War II, the large number of anticolonial and insurrectionary wars threatened to render the Geneva Conventions obsolete. After four years of Red Cross-sponsored negotiations, two additional protocols to the 1949 conventions, covering both combatants and civilians, were approved in 1977. The first, Protocol I, extended protection under the Geneva and Hague conventions to persons involved in wars of “self-determination,” which were redefined as international conflicts. The protocol also enabled the establishment of fact-finding commissions in cases of alleged breaches of the convention. The second protocol, Protocol II, extended human rights protections to persons involved in severe civil conflicts, which had not been covered by the 1949 accords. It specifically prohibited collective punishment, torture, the taking of hostages, acts of terrorism, slavery, and “outrages on the personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault.”
The end of the Cold War, during which tensions between ethnic groups had been suppressed in states throughout eastern and central Europe and elsewhere, gave rise to a number of civil wars, blurring the distinction between internal and international conflicts and complicating the application of relevant legal rules. In a number of cases (e.g., in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Somalia), the United Nations Security Council declared that internal conflicts amounted to a threat to or a breach of international peace and security, which thus made its resolutions on the conflicts binding on the combatants. Because of the Security Council’s activities in expanding the definition of international armed conflicts, an increasing number of rules outlined in the Geneva Conventions and their protocols have come to be regarded as binding on all states. Such rules include the humane treatment of civilians and of prisoners of war.
More than 180 states have become parties to the 1949 conventions. Approximately 150 states are party to Protocol I; more than 145 states are party to Protocol II, though the United States is not. In addition, more than 50 states have made declarations accepting the competence of international fact-finding commissions to investigate allegations of grave breaches or other serious violations of the conventions or of Protocol I.
The importance of the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols was reflected in the establishment of war-crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia (1993) and Rwanda (1994) and by the Rome Statute (1998), which created an International Criminal Court.
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Prisoner of war
See Article HistoryAlternative Titles: POW, PW
Prisoner of war (POW), any person captured or interned by a belligerent power during war. In the strictest sense it is applied only to members of regularly organized armed forces, but by broader definition it has also included guerrillas, civilians who take up arms against an enemy openly, or noncombatants associated with a military force.
Prisoner of war QUICK FACTS KEY PEOPLE
In the early history of warfare there was no recognition of a status of prisoner of war, for the defeated enemy was either killed or enslaved by the victor. The women, children, and elders of the defeated tribe or nation were frequently disposed of in similar fashion. The captive, whether or not an active belligerent, was completely at the mercy of his captor, and if the prisoner survived the battlefield, his existence was dependent upon such factors as the availability of food and his usefulness to his captor. If permitted to live, the prisoner was considered by his captor to be merely a piece of movable property, a chattel. During religious wars, it was generally considered a virtue to put nonbelievers to death, but in the time of the campaigns of Julius Caesar a captive could, under certain circumstances, become a freedman within the Roman Empire.READ MORE ON THIS TOPIClaw of war: Prisoners of warThe third Geneva Convention of 1949 provides the basic framework of protection accorded to a prisoner…
As warfare changed, so did the treatment afforded captives and members of defeated nations or tribes. Enslavement of enemy soldiers in Europe declined during the Middle Ages, but ransoming was widely practiced and continued even as late as the 17th century. Civilians in the defeated community were only infrequently taken prisoner, for as captives they were sometimes a burden upon the victor. Further, as they were not combatants it was considered neither just nor necessary to take them prisoner. The development of the use of the mercenary soldier also tended to create a slightly more tolerant climate for a prisoner, for the victor in one battle knew that he might be the vanquished in the next.
In the 16th and early 17th centuries some European political and legal philosophers expressed their thoughts about the amelioration of the effects of capture upon prisoners. The most famous of these, Hugo Grotius, stated in his De jure belli ac pacis (1625; On the Law of War and Peace) that victors had the right to enslave their enemies, but he advocated exchange and ransom instead. The idea was generally taking hold that in war no destruction of life or property beyond that necessary to decide the conflict was sanctioned. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which released prisoners without ransom, is generally taken as marking the end of the era of widespread enslavement of prisoners of war.Get exclusive access to content from our 1768 First Edition with your subscription.Subscribe today
In the 18th century a new attitude of morality in the law of nations, or international law, had a profound effect upon the problem of prisoners of war. The French political philosopher Montesquieu in his L’Esprit des lois (1748; The Spirit of Laws) wrote that the only right in war that the captor had over a prisoner was to prevent him from doing harm. The captive was no longer to be treated as a piece of property to be disposed of at the whim of the victor but was merely to be removed from the fight. Other writers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emerich de Vattel, expanded on the same theme and developed what might be called the quarantine theory for the disposition of prisoners. From this point on the treatment of prisoners generally improved.
By the mid-19th century it was clear that a definite body of principles for the treatment of war prisoners was being generally recognized in the Western world. But observance of the principles in the American Civil War (1861–65) and in the Franco-German War (1870–71) left much to be desired, and numerous attempts were made in the latter half of the century to improve the lot of wounded soldiers and of prisoners. In 1874 a conference at Brussels prepared a declaration relative to prisoners of war, but it was not ratified. In 1899 and again in 1907 international conferences at The Hague drew up rules of conduct that gained some recognition in international law. During World War I, however, when POWs were numbered in the millions, there were many charges on both sides that the rules were not being faithfully observed. Soon after the war the nations of the world gathered at Geneva to devise the Convention of 1929, which before the outbreak of World War II was ratified by France, Germany, Great Britain, the United States, and many other nations, but not by Japan or the Soviet Union.
During World War II millions of persons were taken prisoner under widely varying circumstances and experienced treatment that ranged from excellent to barbaric. The United States and Great Britain generally maintained the standards set by the Hague and Geneva conventions in their treatment of Axis POWs. Germany treated its British, French, and American prisoners comparatively well but treated Soviet, Polish, and other Slavic POWs with genocidal severity. Of about 5,700,000 Red Army soldiers captured by the Germans, only about 2,000,000 survived the war; more than 2,000,000 of the 3,800,000 Soviet troops captured during the German invasion in 1941 were simply allowed to starve to death. The Soviets replied in kind and consigned hundreds of thousands of German POWs to the labour camps of the Gulag, where most of them died. The Japanese treated their British, American, and Australian POWs harshly, and only about 60 percent of these POWs survived the war. After the war, international war crimes trials were held in Germany and Japan, based on the concept that acts committed in violation of the fundamental principles of the laws of war were punishable as war crimes.
Soon after the end of World War II the Geneva Convention of 1929 was revised and set forth in the Geneva Convention of 1949. It continued the concept expressed earlier that prisoners were to be removed from the combat zone and be humanely treated without loss of citizenship. The convention of 1949 broadened the term prisoner of war to include not only members of the regular armed forces who have fallen into the power of the enemy but also the militia, the volunteers, the irregulars and members of resistance movements if they form a part of the armed forces, and persons who accompany the armed forces without actually being members, such as war correspondents, civilian supply contractors, and members of labour service units. The protections given prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions remain with them throughout their captivity and cannot be taken from them by the captor or given up by the prisoners themselves. During the conflict prisoners might be repatriated or delivered to a neutral nation for custody. At the end of hostilities all prisoners are to be released and repatriated without delay, except those held for trial or serving sentences imposed by judicial processes. In some recent combat situations, such as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks of 2001, fighters captured on the battlefield have been labeled “unlawful combatants” and have not been afforded protections guaranteed under the Geneva Conventions.This article was most recently revised and updated by Kathleen Sheetz.
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SWISS ENGINEER AND ARMY OFFICER
Guillaume-Henri Dufour, (born September 15, 1787, Konstanz, Austrian Empire [now in Germany]—died July 14, 1875, Les Contamines, near Geneva, Switzerland), engineer and army officer who was elected four times to supreme command of the Swiss army.Guillaume-Henri DufourQUICK FACTS
- Geneva Conventions
After studying in Geneva, at the École Polytechnique in Paris, and at the École du Génie in Metz, Dufour served in Napoleon’s army, defending Corfu in 1813 and taking part in the campaigns in France in 1814. He resigned in 1817 and returned to Switzerland, where he was appointed ingénieur cantonal, supervising the construction of public works that greatly improved Geneva. He also helped to form the military school at Thun in 1819, where he became chief instructor. Appointed chief of staff of the Swiss army in 1831, he commanded a division sent to restore order in Basel in 1833. In the same year, he began his pioneer topographical survey of Switzerland (published 1842–64). In 1847 Dufour was elected general of the federal army to act against the separatist confederation of Roman Catholic cantons known as the Sonderbund, and he displayed skill and moderation in its suppression. He was elected general for the second time in 1849 to maintain Swiss neutrality in the face of insurgents from Baden; again in 1857, during the conflict with Prussia over Neuchâtel; and finally in 1859, when the French were about to annex Savoy. He presided over the international congress in Geneva in 1864 that drew up the convention for the wounded in time of war and resulted in the creation of the Red Cross. He also sat in the federal assembly as a Conservative.
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PRISON CAMP ESCAPE, COWRA, NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA 
Cowra breakout, (August 5, 1944), mass escape by nearly 400 Japanese prisoners of war from a prison camp in Cowra, New South Wales, Australia. It was the largest prison break staged during World War II.
- August 5, 1944
The town of Cowra in east-central New South Wales was the site of one of the largest prisoner of war (POW) camps established in Australia during World War II. The camp opened in 1941 and eventually consisted of four compounds, named A, B, C, and D. The camp was roughly circular in shape, with each compound representing a quarter of the circle. The four compounds were divided by interior causeways: a roughly north-south road known as “Broadway” and an east-west road known as “No Man’s Land.” Compounds A and C housed Italians who had been captured during the North Africa campaigns; compound D held Japanese officers and Korean and Chinese labourers who had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese. Compound B housed Japanese enlisted men, and by August 1944 it held 1,104 Japanese soldiers and naval aviators. Whereas the Italian prisoners largely accepted their imprisonment, the Japanese found surrendering to be a humiliating and disgraceful experience. Many of them had adopted aliases in captivity, so as to ensure that friends and family in Japan would believe them dead instead of captured. Although the Japanese prisoners chafed at their confinement, the conditions at the camp and the conduct of the Australian guards conformed to the 1929 Geneva Convention.WORLD WAR II EVENTSkeyboard_arrow_leftHolocaust1933 – 1945Battle of the AtlanticSeptember 3, 1939 – May 8, 1945Dunkirk evacuationMay 26, 1940 – June 4, 1940Battle of BritainJune 1940 – April 1941North Africa campaignsJune 1940 – May 13, 1943Vichy FranceJuly 1940 – September 1944The BlitzSeptember 7, 1940 – May 11, 1941Operation BarbarossaJune 22, 1941Siege of LeningradSeptember 8, 1941 – January 27, 1944Pearl Harbor attackDecember 7, 1941Battle of Wake IslandDecember 8, 1941 – December 23, 1941Pacific WarDecember 8, 1941 – September 2, 1945Bataan Death MarchApril 9, 1942Battle of MidwayJune 3, 1942 – June 6, 1942Kokoda Track CampaignJuly 1942 – January 1943Battle of GuadalcanalAugust 1942 – February 1943Battle of StalingradAugust 22, 1942 – February 2, 1943Warsaw Ghetto UprisingApril 19, 1943 – May 16, 1943Normandy MassacresJune 1944Normandy InvasionJune 6, 1944 – July 9, 1944Warsaw UprisingAugust 1, 1944 – October 2, 1944Cowra breakoutAugust 5, 1944Battle of Leyte GulfOctober 23, 1944 – October 26, 1944Battle of the BulgeDecember 16, 1944 – January 16, 1945Yalta ConferenceFebruary 4, 1945 – February 11, 1945Battle of CorregidorFebruary 16, 1945 – March 2, 1945Battle of Iwo JimaFebruary 19, 1945 – March 26, 1945Bombing of TokyoMarch 9, 1945 – March 10, 1945Battle for Castle ItterMay 5, 1945
The camp was encircled by three barbed wire fences and patrolled by a heavily armed garrison. Six guard towers overlooked the avenues traversing the camp, and it was believed that any escape attempt was tantamount to suicide. Japanese prisoners had no real hope of blending into the local populace or reaching a ship that would return them to a friendly port. In June 1944 a Korean prisoner notified guards about a planned mass escape attempt, and the Australian garrison responded by placing a pair of Vickers guns in positions outside Compound B. On August 4 camp officials informed Compound B inmates that many of them would be relocated to a POW camp in Hay, some 250 miles (400 km) west of Cowra. The Australians were acting in accordance with Article 26 of the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which requires advance notification of all prisoner transfers, but this news proved to be the impetus for the breakout.
At around 2:00 AM on August 5, 1944, a Japanese bugle call signalled the start of the breakout. Most of Compound B’s sleeping huts were set alight, and at least 900 Japanese prisoners, armed with baseball bats, knives, and other improvised weapons, began attempting to break through or scale the fence surrounding Compound B. Two groups hit the outer fences and two groups went over the inner fences onto Broadway. The latter two groups were tasked with breaching Compound D (to enlist the aid of the Japanese officers) and assaulting the camp’s main north and south gates. The Australian garrison responded by opening fire on the attacking prisoners, and the groups on Broadway were pinned down and neutralized. Pvt. Benjamin Hardy and Pvt. Ralph Jones, roused from sleep by the noise, raced to one of the Vickers guns and began firing at the prisoners who were scaling the outer fences and closing on their position en masse. Dozens of prisoners were killed by machine gun fire, but their numbers were too great and Hardy and Jones were soon overwhelmed. In a remarkable display of bravery and presence of mind, before they were killed, the pair managed to disable the gun to prevent its use by the Japanese. For their efforts, which undoubtedly averted far greater bloodshed, both soldiers were posthumously awarded the George Cross. Nearly 400 prisoners managed to escape to the surrounding countryside but within nine days all had been recovered. In total, 231 Japanese prisoners were killed or committed suicide during the breakout and 108 were wounded.Get exclusive access to content from our 1768 First Edition with your subscription.Subscribe today
The postwar era saw a rapprochement between the two former belligerents, and in 1963 the Australian government ceded to Japan a plot of land near the former site of the camp to serve as a war cemetery. Bodies of those killed during the Cowra breakout were interred at the cemetery, as were Japanese war dead from elsewhere in Australia. This latter group included Japanese airmen who had been shot down over Australia. Adjacent to the Japanese war cemetery is the Allied war cemetery, where 26 Australians—including the four soldiers killed in the Cowra breakout—and one British airman are buried. In 1978 ties between Cowra and Japan were further strengthened when construction began on the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre. Designed by landscape architect Ken Nakajima, the Cowra Japanese Garden is the largest Japanese garden in the Southern Hemisphere.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray, Editor.
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The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols
01 JANUARY 2014
What’s 70 years old? Has saved millions of lives? And, continues to protect people? The Geneva Conventions.
The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are international treaties that contain the most important rules limiting the barbarity of war. They protect people who do not take part in the fighting (civilians, medics, aid workers) and those who can no longer fight (wounded, sick and shipwrecked troops, prisoners of war).
The Geneva Conventions – one of humanity’s most important accomplishments of the last century – are turning 70 on 12 August 2019. It’s a moment to celebrate all the lives the conventions have helped save, note the further work that needs to be done and to remind the world of the importance of protecting people from the worst of warfare.
The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are at the core of international humanitarian law, the body of international law that regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its effects. They specifically protect people who are not taking part in the hostilities (civilians, health workers and aid workers) and those who are no longer participating in the hostilities, such as wounded, sick and shipwrecked soldiers and prisoners of war. The Conventions and their Protocols call for measures to be taken to prevent or put an end to all breaches. They contain stringent rules to deal with what are known as “grave breaches”. Those responsible for grave breaches must be sought, tried or extradited, whatever nationality they may hold.
The 1949 Geneva Conventions
The first Geneva Convention protects wounded and sick soldiers on land during war.
This Convention represents the fourth updated version of the Geneva Convention on the wounded and sick following those adopted in 1864, 1906 and 1929. It contains 64 articles. These provide protection for the wounded and sick, but also for medical and religious personnel, medical units and medical transports. The Convention also recognizes the distinctive emblems. It has two annexes containing a draft agreement relating to hospital zones and a model identity card for medical and religious personnel.
Text of the first Geneva Convention>
The second Geneva Convention protects wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel at sea during war.
This Convention replaced Hague Convention of 1907 for the Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention. It closely follows the provisions of the first Geneva Convention in structure and content. It has 63 articles specifically applicable to war at sea. For example, it protects hospital ships. It has one annex containing a model identity card for medical and religious personnel.
Text of the second Geneva Convention>
The third Geneva Convention applies to prisoners of war.
This Convention replaced the Prisoners of War Convention of 1929. It contains 143 articles whereas the 1929 Convention had only 97. The categories of persons entitled to prisoner of war status were broadened in accordance with Conventions I and II. The conditions and places of captivity were more precisely defined, particularly with regard to the labour of prisoners of war, their financial resources, the relief they receive, and the judicial proceedings instituted against them. The Convention establishes the principle that prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities. The Convention has five annexes containing various model regulations and identity and other cards.
Text of the third Geneva Convention>
The Fourth Geneva Convention protects civilians, including those in occupied territory.
The Geneva Conventions, which were adopted before 1949. were concerned with combatants only, not with civilians. The events of World War II showed the disastrous consequences of the absence of a convention for the protection of civilians in wartime. The Convention adopted in 1949 takes account of the experiences of World War II. It is composed of 159 articles. It contains a short section concerning the general protection of populations against certain consequences of war, without addressing the conduct of hostilities, as such, which was later examined in the Additional Protocols of 1977. The bulk of the Convention deals with the status and treatment of protected persons, distinguishing between the situation of foreigners on the territory of one of the parties to the conflict and that of civilians in occupied territory. It spells out the obligations of the Occupying Power vis-à-vis the civilian population and contains detailed provisions on humanitarian relief for populations in occupied territory. It also contains a specific regime for the treatment of civilian internees. It has three annexes containing a model agreement on hospital and safety zones, model regulations on humanitarian relief and model cards.
Text of the fourth Geneva Convention>
Common Article 3
Article 3, common to the four Geneva Conventions, marked a breakthrough, as it covered, for the first time, situations of non-international armed conflicts. These types of conflicts vary greatly. They include traditional civil wars, internal armed conflicts that spill over into other States or internal conflicts in which third States or a multinational force intervenes alongside the government. Common Article 3 establishes fundamental rules from which no derogation is permitted. It is like a mini-Convention within the Conventions as it contains the essential rules of the Geneva Conventions in a condensed format and makes them applicable to conflicts not of an international character:
It requires humane treatment for all persons in enemy hands, without any adverse distinction. It specifically prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment, the taking of hostages and unfair trial.
It requires that the wounded, sick and shipwrecked be collected and cared for.
It grants the ICRC the right to offer its services to the parties to the conflict.
It calls on the parties to the conflict to bring all or parts of the Geneva Conventions into force through so-called special agreements.
It recognizes that the application of these rules does not affect the legal status of the parties to the conflict.
Given that most armed conflicts today are non-international, applying Common Article 3 is of the utmost importance. Its full respect is required.
Where do the Geneva Conventions apply?
The Geneva Conventions have been ratified by all States and are universally applicable.
States Party to the Geneva Conventions>
The Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions
In the two decades that followed the adoption of the Geneva Conventions, the world witnessed an increase in the number of non-international armed conflicts and wars of national liberation. In response, two Protocols Additional to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions were adopted in 1977. They strengthen the protection of victims of international (Protocol I) and non-international (Protocol II) armed conflicts and place limits on the way wars are fought. Protocol II was the first-ever international treaty devoted exclusively to situations of non-international armed conflicts.
In 2005, a third Additional Protocol was adopted creating an additional emblem, the Red Crystal, which has the same international status as the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems.
The ‘Rules Of War’ Are Being Broken. What Exactly Are They?
June 28, 201810:43 AM ET
Credit: Qieer Wang for NPR
What are the rules of war?
It’s a timely question in the wake of attacks on civilians, aid workers and hospitals in conflict zones around the world. Just this week, three hospitals in southern Syria were bombed by pro-government forces, according to The Washington Post.
After such incidents, there are many references to the “rules of war.”
In January, a British MP wrote an op-ed in The Guardian calling for the prosecution of the forces in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “for any violations against civilians and breaches of the rules of war.” This month the coalition’s forces have been attacking the port city of Hodeida, Yemen’s lifeline to critical aid, food and fuel.
Doctors Without Borders has this month declared “that the conduct of hostilities in Syria may violate the basic rules of war.”
The president of UNICEF in Canada has declared, “Around the world, the rules of war are under attack — and so are millions of children.”
The rules of war are part of the Geneva Convention and they first were established in the 19th century.
They dictate what can and cannot bedone during armed conflict. They aim to protect people who are not fighting in the conflict and curb the brutality of war by setting limits on the weapons and tactics that can be employed.
Representatives of aid groups say there is a growing disregard for these rules in conflict zones around the world. “It has become glaringly obvious that respect for international humanitarian law is in decline,” says Scott Paul, the humanitarian policy lead of Oxfam America, a global aid agency.
History of the rules of war
Although our modern rules of war can be traced back to ancient civilizations and religions, it was Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, who began the process of codifying these customs into international humanitarian law. In 1864, he helped establish the first Geneva Convention, an international treaty that required armies to care for the sick and wounded on the battlefield. It was adopted by 12 European countries.
Over the next 85 years,diplomats debated and adopted additional amendments and treaties to address the treatment of combatants at sea and prisoners of war — not just combatants on battlefields. In 1949, after the horrors of World War II, diplomats gathered again in Geneva to adopt fourtreaties that reaffirmed and updated the previous treaties and expanded the rules to protect civilians. They’re now collectively known as the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and contain the most important rules of war.
Upholding the rules
Since then, the rules of war have been ratified by 196 states. They protect people who are not fighting in the conflict and curb the brutality of war by setting limits on the weapons and tactics that can be employed. In 2014, for example, the rules helped guarantee safe passage for civilians in South Sudan to flee violence.
They’re also used in domestic and international courts to determine if a government or non-governmental militant group is guilty of a war crime. If a warring party is accused of violating international humanitarian law — whether by an individual, group, country or observer — countries are obligated to investigate. The U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for example, helped punish war criminals who committed mass atrocities during the Bosnian war in the 1990s.
The U.N. Security Council, a group of 15 countries at the U.N. charged to maintain international peace and security, may also impose sanctions — like a travel ban or an arms embargo — as an incentivefor warring parties tocomply with the rules of war.
Enforcing the rules can be difficult. For example, the five veto-holding permanent members of the Security Council — the U.S., China, Russia, the U.K. and France — must vote unanimously to pursue a resolution that might call for an investigation, refer a case to a court for trial, threaten sanctions or propose another motion. But often one or several of these countries has a vested interest in the conflict in question.
As mandated by the Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has a special role to play as a guardian of these laws. The ICRC tracks the evolution of warfare and makes recommendations for updates to the rules accordingly. It also participates in U.N. discussions on crises and potential violations to ensure the rules are being upheld.
In addition, the ICRC helps inform the public of the rules of war through videos and social media messaging. This 2-minute film, titled “Why we can’t save her life,” won a Grand Prix award at the Cannes Lions festival in France this month. The film reminds people that hospitals are not a target.
The rules of war
Although there are many rules contained in the Conventions, here are six crucial principles that are relevant to ongoing conflicts. Because the rules themselves often use legal terms, we have paraphrased the language.To read the original language, click here:
1. No targeting civilians
Intentionally targeting civilians, buildings such as schools or houses and infrastructure like water sources or sanitation facilities is a war crime. Killing or injuring a person who has surrendered or is no longer able to fight is also prohibited, as is punishing someone for an act that another person, even a family member, has committed.
Attacks should only be directed at military objectives, and military targets such as bases and stockpiles should not be placed in or near populated areas.
If the expected “incidental civilian damage” of an attack is “excessive and disproportionate” to the anticipated military gain, then the attack legally cannot be carried out.
There is one caveat: a civilian structures, for example a school, may become a legitimate target if it is being used for specific military operations — as a base to launch attacks, for example, or a weapons storehouse.
2. No torture or inhumane treatment of detainees
Torture and other forms of cruel, degrading or ill treatment are expressly prohibited. The lives, rights and dignity of detainees should be preserved. They must be given food and water, protected from violence and allowed to communicate with their families.
There are no exceptions to this rule, even when torture might elicit lifesaving information.
3. No attacking hospitals and aid workers
The wounded and sick always have a right to be cared for, regardless of which side of the conflict they’re on. Medical and aid workers who are on duty in these areas make an effort to be neutral and serve both sides of the conflict. They must, therefore, be protected by all warring parties and allowed access to collect and care for the wounded and sick.
If combatants see a red cross or red crescent, symbols of the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, they should know that person or place should not be attacked
But the rules of law do grant an exception for hospitals as well as other civilian structures. If a hospital is being used for specific military operations, it may become a legitimate target.
4. Provide safe passage for civilians to flee
Parties to a conflict must take all reasonable steps to evacuate civilians from areas where there is fighting. In the heat of conflict, such steps can take the form of advanced warnings or the creation of “safe corridors” for civilians to leave a besieged city and for humanitarian workers to deliver aid and services. Civilians must never be blocked from fleeing.
5. Provide access to humanitarian organizations
Civilians and militants who are no longer fighting in the conflict have a right to receive the help they need, whether it’s medical care, food, water or shelter. This means that restricting the delivery of humanitarian aid — through naval and air blockades, closing ports or confiscating supplies — is prohibited. In fact, deliberately causing starvation and hunger is a war crime.
6. No unnecessary or excessive loss and suffering
The tactics and weapons used in war must be proportionate and necessary to achieve a definitive military objective. The use of weapons that are “by nature indiscriminate,” according to the Geneva Conventions, is prohibited.
For example, the use of land mines, while not banned, is limited because they can indiscriminately kill and maim both combatants and civilians.
Additional Protocol I – international conflicts>
Additional Protocol II – non-international conflicts>
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- The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols
- IHL treaties
- Treaties and customary law
- Respect for IHL
- Protected persons
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