Geneva Conventions, 1949

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Geneva Conventions, 1949

The horrors of World War II led nations to recognize that existing rules governing the conduct of warfare were inadequate to cover a prolonged and expanded conflict. The resulting efforts to codify new restrictions on belligerent conflict led to the four conventions concluded at Geneva, Switzerland, in 1949. These four treaties related to (1) the treatment of prisoners of war; (2) the alleviation of the suffering of wounded and sick combatants in the field; (3) the alleviation of the suffering of the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of the armed forces at sea; and (4) the protection of civilian persons during war.

The International Committee of the Red Cross was active in organizing the conferences and preparing draft treaties that resulted in the final conventions. In addition, the International Red Cross assumed responsibility under portions of the conventions to serve as a neutral party to observe compliance with the conventions and to perform humanitarian tasks.

According to Swedish researchers, 95 percent of all deaths in World War I were suffered by soldiers. In World War II, the figure dropped to 50 percent—the remaining deaths were those of civilians when their cities (e.g., London, Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki) were bombed. Unfortunately, the statistics worsened. The civilian deaths from the Korean War is usually estimated at two to three million, and estimates place the number of civilian deaths from the Vietnam War at approximately 365,000. Between 1974 and 1977, the Diplomatic Conference on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law, meeting in Geneva, adopted two protocols to be added to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. One applies to international armed conflicts and the other to non-international armed conflicts. Both significantly provide for enhanced protection of the non-combatant, civilian populations.

Yet another concern for the effectiveness of the Geneva Conventions surfaced over the years. It became increasingly evident that, despite "grave breaches" of protocols, the Geneva Conventions lacked enforcement power. Moreover, those nations ratifying the conventions (59 initial signatories in 1949) were usually not the offenders. (With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, each of the newly independent states that succeeded the former Soviet Union has adhered to the conventions and, excepting Lithuania and Azerbaijan, the additional protocols.) Many of the crimes against humanity were (and are) being committed by warring factions within a country, resulting in genocides, ethnic or religious antagonism, and ultimately the collapse of state structures. In these circumstances, ratification by the prior state entity means little.

With a world community that, in 2000, comprised more than 180 sovereign states, a major overhaul of the Geneva Conventions remained elusive. However, the world community has united to create newer entities such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 1993 and the adoption in Rome of the Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998. These entities have adjudication and sentencing authority, which gives some enforcement power to prosecute and punish those who commit the crimes against humanity outlined in the conventions and protocols. However, the power to identify, pursue, and apprehend suspected violators varies, depending on the circumstances.

Further readings

Bugnion, Francis. 2000. "The Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949: From the 1949 Diplomatic Conference to the Dawn of …" International Affairs 76.

Goldstein, Richard. 2002. "International Law and Justice in America's War on Terrorism." Social Research 69.


International Court of Justice; International Law.

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