Geneva Conventions

Geneva Convention and Additional Protocols

The Geneva Conventions are four treaties, and three Additional Protocols that establish the legal standard for humanitarian treatment in war. The four treaties were approved in Geneva on 12 August 1949. They detail the treatment of civilians, prisoners of war (POWs), and soldiers who are otherwise not part of the hostilities (hors de combat) or are incapable of fighting.

The four treaties of the Geneva Conventions are:

(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 Shipwreck members of Armed Forces at Sea
(3) The Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War
(4) The Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

The first two conventions explain the principle that the sick and wounded have neutral status. The third convention addresses prisoners of war and sets the precedent requiring humane treatment, adequate feeding, and the delivery of relief supplies. It further forbids pressure on prisoners to supply more than minimum information.

The fourth convention re-emphasized humanitarian principles set previously in international law, forbidding the imposition of judicial sentences (including executions) without due process guarantees, collective punishment, torture, hostage taking, offenses that cause serious humiliation or degradation to the victim (“outrages upon personal dignity”), the deportation of individuals or groups, and discriminatory treatment on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs.

In 1977, two Additional Protocols to the 1949 Conventions were approved. The additional protocols covered both combatants and civilians.

Protocol I extended protections to persons involved in international armed conflicts and set limits on how conflict could be fought. The protocol also enabled the establishment of fact-finding commissions in cases of alleged violations of the convention.

Protocol II extended human rights protections to persons involved in severe civil conflicts (non-international), which had not been covered by the 1949 Accords. It specifically prohibited collective punishment, torture, hostage taking, acts of terrorism, slavery, humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution, and any form of incident assault.

Protocol III was adopted in 2005 and established the red crystal as an additional emblem, and having the same status as the existing red cross and red crescent emblems.

More than 180 states are party to the 1949 conventions. Approximately 150 states are party to Protocol I and more than 145 states to Protocol II. Although the US signed Protocols I and II, it has not ratified either. It did, however, ratify Protocol III. More than 50 states have made declarations accepting the competence of international fact-finding commissions to investigate allegations of grave violations of the conventions or of Protocol I.

The four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the two Additional Protocols of 1977, and the Additional Protocol of 2005 are the core of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The significance of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols was reflected in the establishment of war-crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia in 1993 and Rwanda in 1994, as well as the Rome Statute in 1998, which created the International Criminal Court.

Photo Credit: Geneva Conventions – signing in 1949 by British Red Cross is licensed under CC By 2.0