The 1949 Geneva Conventions are the central treaties of international humanitarian law (IHL). As 2019 marks the seventieth anniversary of their adoption, this presents an important opportunity to consider the impact these four key treaties have on the way armed conflicts are fought: to highlight what they have achieved, but also to express outrage at the unacceptable violations of IHL that the world keeps witnessing, and to reflect on the challenges that IHL faces.
The Geneva Conventions aim to preserve the core of our common humanity, at the worst of times. This anniversary is an appeal to do more, to do better, in order to live up to this powerful call.
2 The Context of Adoption
The Geneva Conventions were adopted just four years after World War II, which had brought death, suffering, and destruction of an unprecedented scale. The Holocaust had confronted the world with a total negation of humanity.
Faced with these experiences, how easy it would have been to abandon all hope that some humanity could be preserved in armed conflict. Yet they united the world in agreement that such horrors must never be repeated and that a revision and development of the laws of war was necessary. Notably, the lack of a treaty dedicated to civilians had become painfully clear. The existing treaties provided important protections to wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of the armed forces, and prisoners of war. Civilians, however, were protected by only a few provisions of the Hague Regulations. Proposals in the 1920s and 1930s to expand the treaty protection of civilians had not come to fruition.
In February 1945, with hostilities still raging, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) contacted states and national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to revise and develop the existing treaties. Its proposals found support. These again included a new convention on the protection of civilians, and a suggestion to extend protection to internal armed conflicts--the Spanish Civil War was a fresh memory. On 21 April 1949, Switzerland convened a diplomatic conference in Geneva, bringing together representatives from almost all states existing at the time. On 12 August 1949, the conference adopted the four Geneva Conventions on: the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field; the Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea; Prisoners of War; and, new, Civilians. (1) Each of them also contained a novel article on "armed conflicts not of an international character"--common Article 3.
The Geneva Conventions entered into force in 1950. Today, they are among the few international treaties that have been universally acceded to or ratified.
3 Humanity as the Basis
What made it possible for the Geneva Conventions to become universally accepted? Why did states agree to treaties that aim to regulate armed conflict, in which they try their utmost to overcome their enemies?
The Geneva Conventions and IHL more broadly, such as their 1977 Additional Protocols, do not preclude such efforts. IHL accepts many things that would be unthinkable in peacetime. No rule of IHL prohibits soldiers from killing enemy soldiers in combat. Even incidental loss of civilian lives caused by attacks on military objectives is not necessarily unlawful.
But with IHL, states have drawn a line, making unmistakably clear what is not acceptable, not even against one's worst enemies.
The Geneva Conventions, in particular, focus on the victims of war: people who do not, or who no longer fight. They aim to ensure that their basic needs are met and their lives and dignity are protected. For that purpose, they set out basic, but vital, rules:
--no one may be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment;
--murder, mutilation, and rape are prohibited;
--the wounded and sick, including wounded enemy combatants, must be given the medical care they require;
--hospitals and medical personnel must not be attacked;
--detained persons must be treated humanely and, for example, provided with adequate food...