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International Humanitarian Law: Geneva Convention IV

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Geneva Convention IV - International Humanitarian Law Notes


The Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, commonly referred to as the Fourth Geneva Convention and abbreviated as GCIV, is one of the four treaties of the Geneva Conventions.

It was adopted on August 12, 1949. 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. There are currently 196 countries party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, including this and the other three treaties.

In 1993, the United Nations Security Council adopted a report from the Secretary-General and a Commission of Experts which concluded that the Geneva Conventions had passed into the body of customary international law, thus making them binding on non-signatories to the Conventions whenever they engage in armed conflicts.


The Geneva Convention was a series of international diplomatic meetings that produced a number of agreements. The agreements originated in 1864 and were significantly updated in 1949 after World War II.

The beginning of humanitarian law was in 1864 with the first Geneva Convention. Influenced by one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century in Solferino, Henry Dunant was horrified by the suffering of injured soldiers and in 1862 published UN Souvenir de Solferino (A Memory of Solferino). Dunant proposed that nations should form relief societies to provide care for the wounded in wartime. This laid down the foundation for the Geneva Conventions and led to the establishment of the International Red Cross.

Geneva Conventions which were adopted before 1949 were only concerned with those in combat and not with civilians. The events of World War II showed the disastrous consequences of the absence of convention for protection of civilians in the time of war. Hence, the Geneva Convention IV adopted in 1949 takes into account the experiences of World War II and deals with protection of civilians in war.

GENEVA CONVENTION IV: Protection of Civilian Person in War Time

The Geneva Conventions which were adopted before 1949 were concerned with combatants only, not with civilians. Some provisions concerning the protection of population against the consequences of war and their protection in occupied territories are contained in the regulations concerning the laws and customs of war on land, annexed to the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.

During World War I the Hague provisions proved to be insufficient in view of the dangers originating from air warcore and of the problems relating to the treatment of civilians in enemy territory and in occupied territories.The international conferences of the Red Cross of 1920’s took the first steps towards laying down supplementary rules for the protection of civilians in  time of war.

The 1929 Diplomatic Conference, which revised the Geneva Convention on wounded and sick and drew up the COnvention on the treatment of prisoners of war, limited itself to recommending that “studies should be made with a view to concluding a convention on the protection of civilians in enemy territory and in enemy occupied territory.” A draft convention containing 33 articles prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross was approved by the International Conference of the Red Cross in Tokyo in 1934 and is generally referred to as the “Tokyo Draft”. It was to be submitted to a diplomatic conference planned for 1940, but this was postponed on account of the war. The events of World War II showed the disastrous consequences of the absence of a convention for the protection of civilians in wartime.

The Convention adopted in 1949 takes account of the experiences of World War II. It contains a rather short part concerning the general protection of populations against certain consequences of war (Part II), leaving aside the problem of the limitation of the use of weapons. The great bulk of the Convention (Part III-Article 27-141) puts forth the regulations governing the status and treatment of protected persons: these provisions distinguish between the situation of foreigners on the territory of one of the parties to the conflict and that of civilians in occupied territory.

The Convention does not invalidate the provisions of the Hague Regulations of 1907 on the same subjects but is supplementary to them.


Article 3, common to the four Geneva Conventions, requires humane treatment for all persons in enemy hands, without any adverse distinction. It specifically prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel humiliating and degrading treatment, the taking of hostages and unfair trial. It requires that the wounded, sick and shipwrecked be collected and cared for. It grants the ICRC the right to offer its services to the parties to the conflict. It calls on the parties to the conflict to bring all or parts of the Geneva COnventions into force through so-called special agreements. It recognizes that the application of these rules does not affect the legal status of the parties to the conflict. Given that most armed conflicts today are non-international, applying Common Article 3 is of the utmost importance. Its full respect is required.


In the two decades that followed the adoption of the Geneva COnventions, the world witnessed an increase in the number of non- international armed conflicts and wars of national liberation. In response, two Protocols Additional to the four 1949 Geneva COnventions were adopted in 1977. They strengthen the protection of victims of international (Protocol I) and non-international (Protocol II) armed conflicts and place limits on the way wars are fought. Protocol II was the first-ever international treaty devoted exclusively to situations of non-international armed conflicts. In 2005, a third Additional Protocol was adopted creating an additional emblem, the Red Crystal, which has the same international status as the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems.


The Geneva COnvention and their Additional Protocols are international treaties that contain the most important rules limiting the barbarity of war. They protect people who do not take part in the fighting (civilians, medics, aid workers) and those who can no longer fight (wounded, sick and shipwrecked troops, prisoners of war). Although the Geneva Convention IV of 1949 was certainly not the first International Treaty concerning the regulation of armed conflicts, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 were extremely influential with regard to humanitarian aspects of international law. The Geneva COnventions have been ratified by all States and are universally applicable.

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