The Geneva Conventions have been ratified by all States and are universally applicable. They represent an agreement on an international level to take a stand against the atrocities of war. They are at the core of international humanitarian law (IHL) and seek to regulate and limit the effects of armed conflict.
The spirit of the Geneva Conventions was initiated by Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman who prompted international negotiations regarding the protection and treatment of wounded soldiers during battle and began with the establishment of the ‘Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded in Time of War’ 1864. After witnessing the atrocities of the Battle of Solferino, Henry Dunant was spurred into action and decided to postpone his travels and engaged with the local community to establish medical facilities to treat those who had been wounded in battle.
Following on from the 1864 Convention was the second Convention in 1906 regarding maritime warfare and the third Convention in 1929, which dealt with the treatment of prisoners of war. At an International Red Cross Conference in Stockholm in 1948, the four Geneva Conventions were developed: ‘The Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field’, ‘The Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick, and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea’, ‘The Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War’ and ‘The Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War’. These four Conventions were later accepted on 12 August 1949 in Geneva.
The Conventions set out to protect those who are in the most vulnerable positions, such as prisoners of war, civilians, wounded combatants, humanitarian workers and those whose jobs take them into such volatile situations, like journalists. IHL and the Geneva Conventions promote the sentiment that even wars have limits and breaching these limits can constitute a war crime.
The changing nature of conflict in 21st century society however has posed new and challenging issues in relation to keeping the Geneva Conventions relevant. While the core principles of the Conventions are timeless, the increasing prevalence of non-international armed conflicts (NIAC), urbanisation of conflict, new technologies and the increasing levels of climate change, have all posed challenges in terms of the applicability of the Geneva Conventions in this largely new territory. These challenges provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the nature of conflict over the last seventy years and consider how we will go forward in the coming years to ensure that the limits of war are respected. So, while we celebrate the importance of the Geneva Conventions and their protection of the most vulnerable in conflict situations, we also must use this moment to consider how we will adapt to our ever changing modern society and the address challenges that it will bring with it.
For further information about the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional protocols, click here.
Last updated July 2020.
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