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Geneva Conventions and the International Humanitarian Law

by Sharmishtha Sharma
Geneva Conventions and the International Humanitarian Law


On 22nd August 1864 twelve nations signed the first Geneva Convention, agreeing to guarantee neutrality to medical personnel, and to adopt a special identifying emblem.

The scope of the Geneva Convention reflected the ICRC’s own concerns, which centered on the needs of war victims. But towards the end of the 19th Century, in a separate stream of law, governments began to introduce international rules (the Hague Conventions) governing the way wars were conducted.

Towards the end of World War I, the ICRC appealed for an end to the use of chemical warfare. The discussions that followed led to the adoption of a treaty (1925) to outlaw chemical weapons-a set of rules still in force. The ICRC’s intensive efforts, after World War 1, to expand the protection of war victims resulted in the new Geneva Convention covering prisoners of war, in 1929. But it was unable to persuade governments to adopt a treaty covering civilians before the outbreak of World War II, thus leaving tens of millions of people without specific protection.


The breakthrough on this issue came after the war, when governments adopted the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. These re-wrote the existing Conventions and added a fourth, for the protection of civilians who found themselves under enemy control.

In 1977, after much preliminary work and persuasion by the ICRC, governments adopted Protocols I and II additional to the Geneva Conventions, which combine elements of Hague and Geneva law. Among their many major innovations, the Protocols include provisions to protect civilians from the effects of hostilities Protocol I deals with international armed conflicts, Protocol II deals with conflicts of a non-international nature.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 have been adopted by every country in the world; the Protocols have very broad acceptance and their provisions are considered as customary law.

Since the 1980s , the ICRC has put its energies into measures to encourage governments to implement IHL and to teach its provisions at relevant levels within the state administration- notably, within the armed forces. The ICRC also works with governments and national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to promote knowledge of the law in academic circles, youth and the media.

Hence it is acknowledged that efforts to regulate warfare have existed to a greater or lesser extent throughout history. But these remained temporary, local arrangements, until the middle of the 19th Century when the newly-created ICRC encouraged the adoption of the first Geneva Convention.

ICRC Geneva
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Summary of the events:

3000 BCCustoms, Bilateral Treaties, Customary Law
1859Henry Dunant assists the wounded on battlefield of Solferino
1863Lieber Code (Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field)
1863Foundation of ICRC & first national society
1864First Geneva Convention
1899/1907Hague Convention
Hague Convention
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1925Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological methods of warfare
1929First geneva convention on prisoners of war
1945Establishment of the International Military Tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo for the Prosecution and Punishment of the Major War Criminals
1949Geneva Conventions: I – Wounded and Sick in the field II – Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked at Sea III – Prisoners of War IV – Civilians (in the hands of the enemy) Common Article 3 on non-international armed conflicts
1954Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of Armed Conflict
1977Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions Protocol I – applicable in international armed conflicts (including national liberation wars) Protocol II – applicable to non-international armed conflicts

Geneva Convention I: Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces (August 12, 1949)

The Convention protects soldiers who are hors de combat (out of the battle).  The 10 articles of the original 1864 version of the Convention have been expanded in the First Geneva Convention of 1949 to 64 articles that protect: 

  • Wounded and sick soldiers; 
  • Medical personnel, facilities and equipment; 
  • Wounded and sick civilian support personnel accompanying the armed forces; 
  • Military chaplains; and 
  • Civilians who spontaneously take up arms to repel an invasion.

Specific Provisions

Article 9: This Convention, like the others, recognizes the right of the ICRC to assist the wounded and sick. Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies, other authorized impartial relief organizations and neutral governments may also provide humanitarian service. Local civilians may be asked to care for the wounded and sick.

Article 12

  • The wounded and sick shall be respected and protected without discrimination on the basis of sex, race, nationality, religion, political beliefs or other criteria. 
  • The wounded and sick shall not be murdered, exterminated or subjected to torture or biological experiments.

Article 15

  • The wounded and sick shall receive adequate care.
  • The wounded and sick shall be protected against pillage and ill- treatment.

Article 15-16: All parties in a conflict must search for and collect the wounded and sick, especially after battle, and provide the information concerning them to the Central Tracing and Protection Agency of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Geneva Convention II: Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea (August 12, 1949)

The Convention adapts the protections of the First Geneva Convention to reflect conditions at sea.  It protects wounded and sick combatants while on board ships or at sea. 

Its 63 articles apply to: 

  • Armed forces members who are wounded, sick, or shipwrecked; 
  • Hospital ships and medical personnel; and
  • Civilians who accompany the armed forces.

Specific Provisions

Arts. 12, 18: This Convention mandates that parties in battle take all possible measures to search for, collect and care for the wounded, sick and shipwrecked. (Shipwrecked refers to anyone who is adrift for any reason, including those forced to land at sea or to parachute from damaged aircraft.)

Article 14: While a warship cannot capture a hospital ship’s medical staff, it can hold the wounded, sick and shipwrecked as prisoners of war, providing they can be safely moved and that the warship has the facilities to care for them.

Article 21: Appeals can be made to neutral vessels, including merchant ships and yachts, to help collect and care for the wounded, sick and shipwrecked. Those who agree to help cannot be captured as long as they remain neutral.

Article 22: Hospital ships cannot be used for any military purpose. They cannot be attacked or captured. The names and descriptions of hospital ships must be conveyed to all parties in the conflict.

Article 36-37: Religious, medical and hospital personnel serving on combat ships must be respected and protected. If captured, they are to be sent back to their side as soon as possible.

Geneva Convention III: Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (August 12, 1949)

The Convention sets out specific rules for the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs). The Convention’s 143 articles require that POWs be treated humanely, adequately housed and receive sufficient food, clothing and medical care.  Its provisions also establish guidelines on labor, discipline, recreation and criminal trial.

 Prisoners of war may include: 

  • Members of the armed forces;
  •  Volunteer militia, including resistance movements; and 
  • Civilians accompanying the armed forces.

Specific Provisions

Article 13-14, 16: Prisoners of war must not be subjected to torture or medical experimentation and must be protected against acts of violence, insults and public curiosity.

Article 13, 16: Captors must not engage in any reprisals or discriminate on the basis of race, nationality, religious beliefs, political opinions or other criteria.

Article 14, 25: Female POWs must be treated with regard due to their sex.

Article 17: POWs are required to provide to their captors only their name, rank, date of birth and military service number.

Article 22-29, 50, 54: POWs must be housed in clean, adequate shelter, and receive the food, clothing and medical care necessary to maintain good health. They must not be held in combat areas where they are exposed to fire, nor can they be used to ?shield areas from military operations. They may be required to do non-military jobs under reasonable working conditions when paid at a fair rate.

Article 70-72, 123:  Names of prisoners of war must be sent immediately to the Central Tracing Agency of the ICRC. POWs are to be allowed to correspond with their families and receive relief packages.

Article 82, 84:  Prisoners are subject to the laws of their captors and can be tried by their captors’ courts. The captor shall ensure fairness, impartiality and a competent advocate for the prisoner.

Article 109, 110: Seriously ill POWs must be repatriated (returned home).

Article 118: When the conflict ends, all POWs shall be released and, if they request, be sent home without delay.

Article 125: The ICRC is granted special rights to carry out humanitarian activities on behalf of prisoners of war. The ICRC or other impartial humanitarian relief organizations authorized by parties to the conflict must be permitted to visit with prisoners privately, examine conditions of confinement to ensure the Conventions’ standards are being met and distribute relief supplies.

Geneva Convention IV:  Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (August 12, 1949)

The Convention provides protection to the civilians in areas of armed conflict and occupied territories. There are 159 articles. While the first three conventions dealt with combatants, the Fourth Geneva Convention was the first to deal with humanitarian protections for civilians in a war zone.

Specific Provisions

Arts. 13, 32: Civilians are to be protected from murder, torture or brutality, and from discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, religion or political opinion.

Article 14: Hospital and safety zones may be established for the wounded, sick, and aged, children under 15, expectant mothers and mothers of children under seven.

Article 18: Civilian hospitals and their staff are to be protected.

Arts. 24, 25: This Convention provides for the care of children who are orphaned or separated from their families. The ICRC’s Central Tracing and Protection Agency is also authorized to transmit family news and assist with family reunifications, with the help of Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies.

Article 27: The safety, honor, family rights, religious practices, manners and customs of civilians are to be respected.

Article 33-34: Pillage, reprisals, indiscriminate destruction of property and the taking of hostages are prohibited.

Article 33, 49:They are not to be subjected to collective punishment or deportation.

 Article 40, 51: Civilians cannot be forced to do military-related work for an occupying force.

Article 40, 51: They are to be paid fairly for any assigned work.

Article 55: Occupying powers are to provide food and medical supplies as necessary to the population and maintain medical and public health facilities.

Article 58: Medical supplies and objects used for religious worship are to be allowed passage.

Article 59: When that is not possible, they are to facilitate relief shipments by impartial humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC. Red Cross or other impartial humanitarian relief organizations authorized by the parties to the conflict are to be allowed to continue their activities.

Article 64: Public officials will be permitted to continue their duties. Laws of the occupied territory will remain in force unless they present a security threat.

Article 79-135: If security allows, civilians must be permitted to lead normal lives. They are not to be deported or interned — except for imperative reasons of security. If internment is necessary, conditions should be at least comparable to those set forth for prisoners of war.

Article  89-91: Internees are to receive adequate food, clothing and medical care, and protected from the dangers of war.

Article 106: Information about internees is to be sent to the Central Tracing Agency.

Article 107-108: Internees have the right to send and receive mail and receive relief shipments.

Article 132: Children, pregnant women, mothers with infants and young children, the wounded and sick and those who have been interned for a long time are to be released as soon as possible.

Common Article 3

  • All four Geneva Conventions contain an identical Article 3 extending general coverage to “conflicts not of an international character.” 
  • Common Article 3 is the only provision of the four Geneva Conventions that directly applies to internal armed conflicts.
  • Common Article 3 is revolutionary because it purported to regulate wholly internal matters. 
  • Common Article 3 establishes fundamental rules from which no derogation is permitted.

In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:

1). Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of the armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat (out of the fight) by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, color, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above- mentioned persons:

(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

(b) taking of hostages;

(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;

(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

2) The wounded, sick and shipwrecked shall be collected and cared for. An impartial humanitarian body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, may offer its services to the Parties to the conflict. The Parties to the conflict should further endeavor to bring into force, by means of special agreements, all or part of the other provisions of the present Convention. The application of the preceding provisions shall not affect the legal status of the Parties to the conflict.

 Protocol I – Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (1977)

It expands protection for the civilian population as well as military and civilian medical workers in international armed conflicts. The “armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination, alien occupation or racist regimes” are to be considered international conflicts.it has 102 Articles in total.

Specific Provisions

Article 15, 79, Arts. 76-77: Special protections are provided for women, children and civilian medical personnel, and measures of protection for journalists are specified.

Article 17, 81: The ICRC, national societies or other impartial humanitarian organizations authorized by parties to the conflict must be permitted to provide assistance.

Article 35:  Use of weapons that “cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering,” as well as means of warfare that “cause widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment” are prohibited.

Arts. 43-44: Protocol I seeks to clarify the military status of members of guerrilla forces in the following manner: It includes provisions granting combatant and prisoner of war status to members of dissident forces when under the command of a central authority. Such combatants cannot conceal their allegiance; they must be recognizable as combatants while preparing for or during an armed conflict.

Article 51, 54: It outlaws indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations and destruction of food, water and other materials needed for survival.

Article 56, 53: Dams, dikes and nuclear generating stations may not be attacked, nor can cultural objects and places of worship.

Article 77: Recruitment of children under age 15 into the armed forces is forbidden.

Article 85: It is a war crime to use one of the protective emblems recognized by the Geneva Conventions to deceive the opposing forces or to use other forms of treachery.

Protocol II – Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non- International Armed Conflicts (1977)

Protocol II elaborates on protections for victims caught up in high-intensity internal conflicts such as civil wars.  It does not apply to such internal disturbances as riots, demonstrations and isolated acts of violence.  Protocol II expands and complements the non-international protections contained in Article 3 common to all four Geneva Conventions of 1949.  There are 28 articles.

Specific Provisions

Article 4:  Persons who do not take a direct part or who have ceased to take part in hostilities are entitled to respect. In all circumstances, they are to be treated humanely. Protocol II specifically prohibits violence to the life, health and physical or mental well-being of people. In particular, it prohibits acts of murder and cruel treatment, terrorism, hostage-taking, slavery, outrages on personal dignity, collective punishment and pillage. These protections are considered fundamental guarantees for all persons.  Children are to be evacuated to safe areas when possible and reunited with their families.

Article 5: Persons interned or detained during internal conflicts are assured of the same humane treatment as specified by the Geneva Conventions.

Article 7, 9: Strengthens protection of the wounded, sick and shipwrecked as well as medical and religious personnel.

Article 10-11, Article 13-14, Article 16: Attacks are forbidden on civilians and on “objects indispensable to civilian survival” such as crops, irrigation systems or drinking water sources, cultural objects, and places of worship.

Article 18: Impartial humanitarian relief organizations, such as the ICRC, are to be permitted to continue their humanitarian services.

Protocol III – Relating to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem (2005)

In December 2005, a third Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions was adopted that provides for another distinctive emblem: the red crystal.  The red crystal is an optional emblem, equal in status to the red cross and red crescent. The red crystal may be used in environments where another emblem could be perceived as having religious, cultural or political connotations. It consists of 17 articles.

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