The Geneva Conventions Remain As Relevant As Ever

 Diplomatic Conference of Geneva, 1949. J. Cadoux/ICRC Archives. 

 Diplomatic Conference of Geneva, 1949. J. Cadoux/ICRC Archives. 

On August 12th, 2016, the Geneva Conventions--which place limits on how war is waged and form the cornerstone of international humanitarian law (IHL)--turn 67.

With civilians bearing the brunt of many protracted conflicts, scholars and aid agencies have raised questions about the continued relevance of IHL.  While the nature of warfare has changed unrecognizably since the adoption of the original convention more than 150 years ago, the rules of IHL remain as relevant as ever. Even in an era that has seen the ways of war grown far beyond what the signatories of the Geneva Conventions could have conceived, and where most wars are fought within States, not between them, the Conventions, together with their Additional Protocols and Customary international law provides important protections for civilians, militaries, the wounded and detainees.

In this post, we take a look at the history and development of the Conventions over the last six decades. In the second part, we examine the current challenges facing the rules of war and on the organization's ongoing efforts to ensure that the Conventions continue to stand the test of time.

War is no way a relationship of man with man but a relationship between States, in which individuals are enemies only by accident; not as men, nor even as soldiers…Since the object of war is to destroy the enemy State, it is legitimate to kill the latter’s defenders as long as they are carrying arms; but as soon as they lay them down and surrender, they cease to be enemies or agents of the enemy, and again become mere men, and it is no longer legitimate to take their lives.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762

 The History and Purpose of the Geneva Conventions

Contemporary IHL came into being with the Original Geneva Convention of 1864, evolving in stages to meeting the ever-growing need for humanitarian protection arising from advances in weapons technology and changes in the nature of armed conflict. In 1949, after the end of World War II, States adopted the Four Geneva Conventions as they exist today. These conventions remain the cornerstone of IHL—the body of rules that protect civilians and people who are no longer fighting, including wounded and sick military personnel and prisoners of war. While the first three Geneva Conventions of 1949 grew out of existing treaties on the same subjects, the fourth Geneva Convention was absolutely new, being the first IHL treaty to deal specifically with the protection of civilians during among conflict. Their purpose is not to stop war but rather to limit the worst consequences of armed conflict.

The Geneva Conventions only apply to international armed conflicts, with the exception of Article 3 common to all four Conventions, which also covers non-international armed conflicts. The adoption of this article in 1949 was a breakthrough since previous IHL treaties had only covered situations of wars between States. As most of today's wars are classified as non-international armed conflicts, Article 3 remains vitally important in current contexts because it sets a baseline for the protection of people who are not or no longer fighting (eg civilians, detainees, the wounded), to which all sides – State and non-State parties to conflict – must abide. 

Remarkably, the Conventions have been universally ratified, meaning every single State in the world is party to them.

ICRC and the Geneva Conventions

The signing of the Geneva Convention of 1864. Painting by Armand Dumaresq. Copyright ICRC. 

The signing of the Geneva Convention of 1864. Painting by Armand Dumaresq. Copyright ICRC. 

The ICRC is at the origin of the Geneva Conventions. Henry Dunant, the founder of the ICRC, also had the idea for the First Geneva Convention, "for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded in armies in the field," which was adopted in 1864. International Humanitarian Law, and in fact the creation of the ICRC itself, was directly inspired by Dunant’s witness to the grim aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in 1859.

As the guardian and promoter of IHL, the ICRC takes action to protect and assist victims of armed conflicts and other situations of violence, and to foster respect for the law.

Since Dunant's time, the ICRC has always tried to compare the Geneva Conventions, and IHL as a whole, to the reality of armed conflict as we experience it on the ground. From the very beginning, we have been part of a dynamic process which ensures that IHL is adapted to ongoing changes in warfare.

For example, in the years leading up to the Second World War, the ICRC drafted and sought approval for an International Convention on the condition and protection of civilians of enemy nationality who were on a territory belonging to or occupied by a belligerent. No action was taken on that text since governments refused to convene a diplomatic conference to decide on its adoption.

As a result, there was no specific treaty that protected civilians against the horrors of the Second World War. In response, the international community agreed in 1949 to adopt the Fourth Geneva Convention for the protection of civilians. Considered a watershed moment, the Fourth Geneva Convention meant the rules of war included the protection of civilian populations and property during times of armed conflict. 

Today, the ICRC derives its humanitarian mandate from the Conventions, which task the ICRC with visiting prisoners, organizing relief operations, re-uniting separated families and similar humanitarian activities during armed conflicts. The ICRC is mentioned explicitly in several provisions of the Conventions.

[The Geneva Conventions], like any law, won’t stop all suffering. This may sound counter-intuitive. But importantly, the law has never been stronger or better known by the public and the outrage expressed when it is breached has never been greater. So although it may be tempting to say the Geneva conventions don’t work, that would be a fallacy.
Helen Durham, ICRC Director of International Law & Policy, in a Guardian op-ed

Evolution and Development of IHL

IHL has expanded considerably as the character and impact of war have evolved over the years. Notably, in 1977, two Additional Protocols were adopted. Additional Protocol I strengthened the protection of victims of international armed conflicts, while Additional Protocol II did the same for non-international armed conflicts, including civil wars. 

The 1980s and 90s saw other international treaties come into force, banning certain conventional weapons, such as antipersonnel landmines, as well as chemical weapons. In 2008, more than 100 States signed up to an historic treaty against the use of cluster munitions.

There has also been significant progress in terms of investigating and punishing war crimes, thanks to the work of the international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

The true test of IHL is whether combatants, and those who command them, abide by the rules. That is why ICRC makes strenuous efforts to achieve greater respect for IHL, and to ensure that it is adequately implemented and enforced. Ultimately, what is needed, beyond humanitarian or legal action, is the political will to spare civilians and to respect IHL.         


Editor's Note: In our next post, we will examine the challenges facing IHL in today's changing context and on how ICRC works to ensure that the Conventions continue to remain relevant.