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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
The four 1949 Geneva Conventions apply to a "declared war or ...
With respect to common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, starvation or a policy of denial and neglect involving starvation and malnutrition would violate the prohibition of "cruel treatment" and the duty to treat civilians "humanely."(49) Further, the actions would constitute "humiliating and degrading treatment" of civilians forced to starve or to suffer near starvation or malnutrition while also watching family members and friends fall victim to the same denial of rights.(50) A violation of common Article 3 is not merely a violation of customary human rights in times of armed conflict, but also constitutes a war crime.(51)
The committee, chaired by Al-Afasi, will specialize in studying national legislations on the humanitarian law in accordance with Kuwait's commitment to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the Ministry of Justice said in a press release on Wednesday.
The Global Coalition to protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) said, "During situations of armed conflict, attacks on education may violate international humanitarian and criminal law and constitute war crimes (or crimes against humanity during war or peacetime) as set out in the 1907 Hague Regulations, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and customary international humanitarian law."
The settlements contravene the 1949 Geneva Conventions forbidding the transfer of civilian populations into occupied territory, which could amount to war crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the UN council's report said.
At this time, Amnesty International also reminds all states that are party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions that they must also assume their individual responsibility for ensuring accountability.
After criticism from human rights organizations and many foreign governments regarding the determination that the Geneva Conventions of 1949 do not apply to the detainees there, (8) President Bush shifted position with an announcement that Taliban fighters are covered by the 1949 Geneva Conventions, while Al Qaeda fighters are not.
When coupled with the anomaly created by the absence of a statement of underlying principles in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the emphasis on the express limitation of Common Article 3 to noninternational armed conflicts, this revised interpretation of Article 75 contributed to the conclusion that the armed conflict with al Qaeda was outside the scope of the legally mandated requirement to treat captured personnel humanely.
He added that it was unacceptable that the international community remained silent in face of violations of international humanitarian law and the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Al-Otaibi also lamented that the unlawful unilateral measures to Judaize the occupied Jerusalem continued, as had incursions into Al-Aqsa mosque.
The Global Coalition to protect Education from Attack also said, During situations of armed conflict, attacks on education may violate international humanitarian and criminal law and constitute war crimes (or crimes against humanity during war or peacetime) as set out in the 1907 Hague Regulations, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and customary international humanitarian law.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lars Knuchel said the demolitions violated the 1949 Geneva Conventions, regarded as the cornerstone of international law on the obligations of warring and occupying powers.
Among other things, the Act prohibits certain violations of Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which sets out minimum standards for the treatment of detainees in armed conflicts of a non-international character.