The Geneva Conventions comprise four treaties, and three additional protocols, that establish the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment in war. The singular term Geneva Convention usually denotes the agreements of 1949, negotiated in the aftermath of the Second World War (1939–45), which updated the terms of the two 1929 treaties, and added two new conventions. The Geneva Conventions extensively defined the basic rights of wartime prisoners (civilians and military personnel), established protections for the wounded and sick, and established protections for the civilians in and around a war-zone. The treaties of 1949 were ratified, in whole or with reservations, by 196 countries.[1] Moreover, the Geneva Convention also defines the rights and protections afforded to non-combatants, yet, because the Geneva Conventions are about people in war, the articles do not address warfare proper—the use of weapons of war—which is the subject of the Hague Conventions (First Hague Conference, 1899; Second Hague Conference 1907), and the bio-chemical warfare Geneva Protocol (Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, 1925).



The Geneva Conventions comprise four treaties, and three additional protocols, that establish the standards of international law for the humanitarian treatment of war. The singular term Geneva Convention denotes the agreements of 1949, negotiated in the aftermath of the Second World War (1939–45), which updated the terms of the first three treaties (1864, 1906, 1929), and added a fourth treaty. The Geneva Conventions extensively defined the basic, wartime rights of prisoners (civil and military); established protections for the wounded; and established protections for the civilians in and around a war-zone. The treaties of 1949 were ratified, in whole or with reservations, by 195 countries. Moreover, the Geneva Convention also defines the rights and protections afforded to non-combatants, yet, because the Geneva Conventions are about people in war, the articles do not address warfare proper — the use of weapons of war — which is the subject of the Hague Conventions (First Hague Conference, 1899; Second Hague Conference 1907), and the bio–chemical warfare Geneva Protocol (Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, 1929).


Until the middle of the 19th century all of the treaties concerning war victims’ protection were circumstantial and binding only for the signing parties. These agreements were purely military-designed, based on strictly binding mutual obligations; and they were in force only during specific armed conflict.

The 1864 Geneva Convention laid the foundations for the contemporary humanitarian law. It was in a whole characterized by:

  • standing written rules of universal scope to protect the victims of conflicts;
  • its multilateral nature, open to all States; the obligation to extend care without discrimination to wounded and sick military personnel;
  • respect for and marking of medical personnel, transports and equipment using an emblem (red cross on a white background).

The creation of the modern humanitarian law was strongly tied with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, changing the matter of things. It was a big step towards humanity. Since then countries are bound by multilateral treaty, which is in force forever and on every occasion.


It all began in June 1859, when a merchant named Henry Dunant was traveling through the war-ravaged plain of Normandia, north of Italia, after the battle of Solferino. Seeing thousands of wounded soldiers left dying in the mercy of fate, he appealed to the local inhabitants to come and help, insisting that combatants from both sides should be taken care of. There and then it crossed the Dunant’s mind an idea about the creation of the Red Cross;. so he decided to tell the world about experienced horrors of war and wrote a book “A memory of Solferino”, let it be mentioned here that with this work he initiated the news reports’ epoch. In his book, published in 1862, he made two solemn appeals; firstly, for relief societies to be formed in the peacetime with nurses who would be ready to care for the wounded in wartime. Secondly, for these volunteers, who would be called upon to assist the military medical services, to be recognized and protected through an international agreement. These ideas soon materialized in the creation of the “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded”, which later became the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In response to an invitation from the International Committee, representatives from sixteen countries and four philanthropic institutions gathered at an International Conference in Geneva in 1863. This event marked the founding of the Red Cross as an institution. But this was only the first step. Henry Dunant and the other members of the Committee wanted official and international recognition of the Red Cross and its ideals. They wanted a Convention to be adopted which would ensure the protection of medical services on the battlefield.

To this end the Swiss government agreed to convene a Diplomatic Conference which was held in Geneva in 1864. Representatives of twelve governments took part and adopted a treaty prepared by the International Committee and entitled the “Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field”. This agreement, with its ten articles, was the first treaty of international humanitarian law. Subsequently, further conferences were held, extending the basic law to other categories of victims, such as prisoners of war. In 1899 in the Hague it was signed the next Convention, adjusting Geneva Convention’s principles to the war-action at sea. In 1906, the ten articles of the First Convention were improved and complemented. And in 1907 under the terms of this Convention,. In the Hague it were determined all combatants’ categories who had the war-prisoner’s status when detained as well as the right for the adequate treatment during their captivity. In 1929, these Conventions were developed further and affirmed one more time.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, a Diplomatic Conference deliberated for four months before adopting the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which for the first time included provisions for the protection of civilians in wartime. In 1977, the Conventions were supplemented by two Additional Protocols.

The First Geneva Convention, signed in 1864, was the first treaty of international humanitarian law. In 1899 in the Hague it was signed the next convention, applying the Geneva convention to war action at sea.

And in 1907 The Hague Convention determined combatants’ categories. In 1929 these conventions were developed further and expanded one more time. In 1949 during the international conference it was adopted Geneva convention “Civil persons’ protection during the war-time” as well transcribed three previous adapted conventions and submitted their texts. The Geneva convention from 1949 and additional Protocols in totonearly 600 paragraphs is law achievement with a historical importance.


Persons who do not or can no longer take part in the hostilities are entitled to respect for their life and for their physical and mental integrity. Such persons must in all circumstances be protected and treated with humanity, without any unfavorable distinction whatever.

It is forbidden to kill or wound an adversary who surrenders or who can no longer take part in the fighting.

The wounded and sick must be collected and cared for by the party to the conflict which has them in its power. Medical personnel and medical establishments, transports and equipment must be spared. The Red Cross or red crescent on a white background is the sign protecting such persons and objects and must be respected.

Captured combatants and civilians who find themselves under the authority of the adverse party are entitled to respect for their life, their dignity, their personal rights and their political, religious and other convictions. They must be protected against all acts of violence or reprisal. They are entitled to exchange news with their families and receive aid.

Everyone must enjoy basic judicial guarantees and no one may be held responsible for an act he has not committed. No one may be subjected to physical or mental torture or to cruel or degrading corporal punishment or other treatment.

Neither the parties to the conflict nor members of their armed forces have an unlimited rights to choose methods and means of warfare. It is forbidden to use weapons or methods of warfare that are likely to cause unnecessary losses or excessive suffering.

The parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and civilian property. Neither the civilian population as whole nor individual civilians may be attacked. Attacks may be made solely against military objectives.



The basic principles of Geneva conventions are reposing on the respect of the human being and are respecting its dignity.

Individuals, who do not take direct part in hostilities as well as individuals, cannot take part in these actions due illness, wound, captivity or other reasons, are entitled to be respected and protected against conflicting sides’ military operations’ consequences without any unfavorable distinction whatever.

Additional protocols are extending action field, concerning it to any individual, involved in a military conflict. Moreover, these protocols oblige warring sides and combatants not to attack civilians and civil objects as well oblige to guarantee the providing of military operations in compliance with the generally accepted humanitarian law

Geneva conventions, accepted on August the 12th, 1949

The protection provided by the Conventions applies to the following categories of persons:

The First Convention – wounded and sick members of the armed forces in the field;

The Second Convention – wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of the armed forces at sea as well as shipwreck victims;

The Third Convention – prisoners of the war;

The Fourth Convention – civilians in times of war.


The ICRC, being the initiator and the guardian of international humanitarian law, is responsible for its development in order to be in step with warfare changes. The law are formed in a consecutive stages, as well providing the revision of existing documents whenever the Committee considers it as a necessary measure. Committee’s legal experts organize and participate in meetings and conferences aimed at improving the protection of war victims. Banning the use of certain weapons, such as anti-personnel landmines and blinding weapons, is among the issues currently being examined.

In the 1965 ICRC decided that it was coming up to this measure. Even if the Geneva Conventions dated 1949 have not lost their importance and significance, they were incomplete in the terms of the necessity to protect the victims of modern military conflicts. For that reason ICRC began research the possibilities to fill these gaps in existing law, providing them with the additive protocols. In February, 1974, Swiss government convened a diplomatic conference in order to discuss the draft protocols. Invited were 115 countries who signed Geneva conventions or/and the member states of United Nations Organization. In this conference it took part observers representing 14 national liberation organizations as well as 35 intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations; 102 official representatives adopted 102 paragraphs of the First protocol concerning protection of the victims of international military conflicts, as well as 28 paragraphs of the Second protocol concerning the protection of the victims of local conflicts. In June the 10th, 1977, there was the official ceremony of the signing of these Protocols, but in general these activities had the ceremonial character. The two Additional Protocols of 1977 supplement the Conventions which aim to limit the use of violence and protect the civilian population by strengthening the rules governing the conduct of hostilities.


1) This Convention sets out the rules, internationally agreed, regarding the rights and treatment of prisoners of war during captivity. It applies equally to our servicemen who are captured and to enemy servicemen who are taken prisoner by our forces. The more important requirements are set out below.

2) Members of the regular armed forces are not the only persons entitled on capture to be treated as prisoners of war. Members of the militia, volunteer corps, civilians holding military identity cards, seamen holding identity cards issued by their governments and under certain conditions members of the resistance movements in occupied territories are also entitled to be so treated. In some cases of doubt, a captured person must be given the benefit of the doubt and treated initially as a prisoner of war.

3) All prisoners are entitled to humane and respectful treatment and must be protected from acts of violence, intimidation, insults, and public curiosity. Reprisals against them are forbidden.

4) The Convention required that when a serviceman is taken prisoner he shall supply his captors with his name, rank and date of birth and shall produce to them his identity card issued under the provisions of Article 17 of the Prisoner of War Convention (in the case of British forces this is the F/Ident/189). No other information is required to be given and the captors are forbidden to demand it or to threaten a prisoner who refuses to supply it.

5) Prisoners of war must be left in possession of their personal effects including metal helmets, gas masks, identity documents, clothing, articles for feeding, badges of rank and decorations. Arms, military equipment (other than the above) and military documents may be taken away, but money and valuables may only be taken by order of an officer who must give a receipt in proper form.

6) After capture prisoners are to be evacuated from the fighting zone as quickly as possible. During this period they must be given sufficient food and water (and clothing if necessary) and the general arrangements for their accommodation and transport should be substantially the same as for the forces which capture them. Similarly sick and wounded prisoners are to be evacuated through medical channels and looked after as far as possible by captured military personnel of their own nationality.

7) The Convention requires that there shall be in every POW camp a copy of the Convention in the prisoner’s own language. All prisoners must study this and make every effort to obtain their rights under it. The ‘prisoners representative’ or ‘camp leader’ in the camp will given any help he can to prisoners seeking their rights under the Convention.

8) Any prisoner who considers he is being treated incorrectly, in accordance with the Convention, may complain to the camp authorities. A prisoner making a complaint may not be punished even if it appears to the camp authorities that the complaint is frivolous. If a grievance is not redressed a further complain may be made directly or through the prisoner’s representative to the delegate of the Protecting Power who may be written to or seen personally when visiting the camp. It is his duty to protect the prisoners.

9) If a prisoner of war attempts to escape, arms may only be used against him to prevent his escape as an extreme measure and after a warning has been given.

10) If an escaping prisoner, with the sole intention of facilitating his escape, commits and offence which does not entail violence such as, for example, an offence against private property, theft without intention of self-enrichment, the drawing up and use of false papers, or the wearing of civilian clothing, he may, on re-capture, only be dealt with summarily. An escaping prisoner whether in disguise or not must always carry a means of identity to prove his status of prisoner of war if he is re-captured.



When Henry Dunant visited the wounded soldiers after the Battle of Solferino, he was shocked by the lack of facilities, personnel, and medical aid needed to help these soldiers. As a result, he published his book, Memoir of the Solferino, in 1862, on the horrors of war. His wartime experiences inspired Dunant to propose:

  • A permanent relief agency for humanitarian aid in times of war
  • A government treaty recognizing the neutrality of the agency and allowing it to provide aid in a war zone

The former proposal led to the establishment of the Red Cross in Geneva. The latter led to the 1864 Geneva Convention, the first codified international treaty that covered the sick and wounded soldiers in the battlefield. For both of these accomplishments, Henry Dunant became corecipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

The ten articles of this first treaty were initially adopted on August 22, 1864 by twelve nations. Clara Barton was instrumental in campaigning for the ratification of the 1864 Geneva Convention by the United States, which eventually ratified it in 1882.

The second treaty was first adopted in the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armies at Sea, concluded on July 6, 1906 and specifically addressed members of the Armed Forces at sea. It was continued in the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, concluded on July 27, 1929 and entered into effect on June 19, 1931. Inspired by the wave of humanitarian and pacifistic enthusiasm following World War II and the outrage towards the war crimes disclosed by the Nuremberg Trials, a series of conferences were held in 1949 reaffirming, expanding and updating the prior three Geneva Conventions and adding a new elaborate Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

Despite the length of these documents, they were found over time to be incomplete. In fact, the very nature of armed conflicts had changed with the beginning of the Cold War era, leading many to believe that the 1949 Geneva Conventions were addressing a largely extinct reality: on the one hand, most armed conflicts had become internal, or civil wars, while on the other, most wars had become increasingly asymmetric. Moreover, modern armed conflicts were inflicting an increasingly higher toll on civilians, which brought the need to provide civilian persons and objects with tangible protections in time of combat, thus bringing a much needed update to the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. In light of these developments, two Protocols were adopted in 1977 that extended the terms of the 1949 Conventions with additional protections. In 2005, a third brief Protocol was added establishing an additional protective sign for medical services, the Red Crystal, as an alternative to the ubiquitous Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, for those countries that find them objectionable.


The Second World War remains a conflict distinguished by violence on an unprecedented scale. And not only extreme violence by one combatant against another; much of it was directed against civilians, who had not paid such a heavy price for mankind’s warmongering since the Thirty Years’ War. The discovery of the Nazi concentration camps and the extent of the mass extermination carried out within their walls added yet another layer of horror to the tragedy that the world lived through from 1939 to 1945. In order to transmit the sentiment of the time, one quote by General Eisenhower while visiting a Nazi death camp in 1945 may suffice: ” The world must know what happened, and never forget ” .

There can therefore be no doubt that the decision to draft the Geneva Conventions of 1949 was sealed by the tragedy of the Second World War and that the conventions were intended to fill the gaps in international humanitarian law exposed by the conflict.

However, when stating the fact that this progress made in 1949 can only be explained on the background of the horrific sufferings incurred by the second world war, we should not forget that improvements in the protection of victims of war (in particular civilians) had actually been under discussion well before the outbreak of war. Since the early 1920s, the ICRC had considered various projects – one of which was designed to protect the civilian population against the effects of war, in particular aerial warfare. The Committee had also drafted a convention offering protection to civilians in enemy hands. This draft, which came to be known as the Tokyo Draft since it was presented at the International Conference of the Red Cross of 1934 in the Japanese capital, was to be the subject of a future diplomatic conference convened by Switzerland. As with the Diplomatic Conference of 1929, during which the Convention on Prisoners of War was adopted, hopes within the ICRC were high of seeing another demonstration of States’goodwill, this time towards civilians. Yet it was not to be. A lack of enthusiasm on the part of governments meant that Switzerland was not able to announce the diplomatic conference until June 1939 – and it was scheduled for early 1940. The rest is history.

During the war, the ICRC’s energies were largely taken up by its activities in the field, but as the guardian of international humanitarian law, it continued to discuss the possibility of relaunching the process of revising and extending the law of Geneva as soon as possible.

In February 1945, therefore, even before the end of hostilities, the ICRC announced to governments and National Red Cross Societies its intention to revise the existing Geneva Conventions and have new conventions adopted, all the while wondering whether there was still a place for humanitarian rules in an era of total warfare.

Overcoming its apprehension, the ICRC organised a Preliminary Conference of National Red Cross Societies in Geneva to study the conventions protecting victims of war in September 1945, followed by a Conference of Government Experts in 1947. The latter was to give a view on revising the two existing Geneva Conventions, on the ” wounded and sick ” and ” prisoners of war ” , and above all on preparing a new convention on the condition and protection of civilians in times of war.

The government experts supported the ICRC’s proposals, including that of a new idea of applying the Conventions in all cases of armed conflict, including internal ones. Emboldened by this support, the ICRC informed the Swiss authorities of its wish to convene another diplomatic conference. Meanwhile, the participants of the 17th International Conference of the Red Cross in Stockholm in 1948 declared themselves in favour of revising and adapting the Geneva Conventions.

The diplomatic conference opened on 21 April in the presence of representatives from 64 countries, covering almost every State in the world at that time. According to various eye-witness accounts, no conference had ever been so well prepared. Nevertheless, it took almost four months to complete its work, which surprised the public and made the conference much longer than anticipated. However, there was a positive feeling at the meetings, even perhaps a sense of camaraderie and frank discussion, even while the world had just entered the Cold War. The following four conventions were adopted as a result of these proceedings:

  • Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field;
  • Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea;
  • Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War;
  • Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

Overall, these four texts greatly expanded the scope of international humanitarian law. Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions proved to be a significant victory, extending the principles of the Geneva Conventions to non-international armed conflicts, and sweeping aside certain obstacles of national sovereignty. According to common Article 3, the parties to an internal armed conflict commit to respecting people’s fundamental rights. Understandably, common Article 3 was the subject of the most intense and drawn-out discussions of the whole conference.

But the greatest advance of all remains the adoption of the fourth Convention, which offers civilians a similar protection to other victims of war. Described as a “miracle” by the then ICRC president, Paul Ruegger, the fourth Convention finally closed one of the most serious gaps exposed by the Second World War and all other wars before it.

The four Geneva Conventions are dated 12 August 1949. This is the date on which the Final Act of the diplomatic conference to which they are annexed was signed. At the same moment, 18 government delegations also signed the four new Conventions.

The other delegations had asked for some time so their governments could study the texts, so a second signing ceremony was held on 8 December 1949 in Geneva. On this occasion, government representatives signed the new Conventions on the same table which had been used to sign the 1864 Geneva Convention – a highly historic and symbolic gesture.

The Geneva Conventions immediately had a huge success. They entered into force already on 21 October 1950 after the first two ratifications. They were ratified by 74 States in the 1950’s and obtained a further 48 ratifications in the 1960’s. The ratification steadily increased in the 1970’s (20 ratifications) and 1980’s (20 ratifications). A wave of 26 new ratifications occurred in the early 1990’s, resulting in particular from the break up of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia. With the last few (7) ratifications since the year 2000 the applicability of the Geneva Convention has today become universal, with 194 States party.

Today the Geneva Conventions remain the cornerstone of contemporary international humanitarian law. They contain the essential rules protecting persons who are not or no longer taking a direct part in hostilities when they find themselves in the hands of an adverse party. These persons are, as mentioned before, the wounded and sick, the shipwrecked, the prisoners of war and civilians, including those civilians living under occupation.

The basic notion underlying the Geneva Conventions is the notion of respect for the life and dignity of the individual. Those who suffer in conflict must be aided and cared for without distinction. The Conventions also confirm and strengthen the role of the medical mission – medical personnel, medical units and transports must be respected and protected in all circumstances. This is an indispensable condition to be able to collect and care for the wound and sick. The principles on which these rules are based are as old as armed conflict itself.

Yet, the question still rises frequently: Are the Conventions still relevant today; are they still relevant in contemporary wars?

The ongoing relevance of IHL is supported by the findings of an opinion poll that asked a series of questions about what people in countries affected by war consider acceptable behaviour during hostilities and on the effectiveness of the Geneva Conventions. The research, entitled Our world. Views from the field  . , was carried out by the Ipsos Agency in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia and the Philippines. This survey I am referring to was specifically commissioned by the ICRC to mark this anniversary and has been published yesterday.

Most of the roughly 4,000 people surveyed across the eight countries – 75% – say there should be limits to what combatants are allowed to do in the course of fighting. But when asked if they had ever heard of the Geneva Conventions, slightly less than half said they knew such rules existed. Among them, around 56% believe the Conventions limit the suffering of civilians in wartime.

The findings reveal broad support for the cor e ideas behind the Geneva Conventions, and IHL as a whole, by people who have actually lived in conflict- and violence-affected countries.

However, the survey has also revealed – I suppose this is less surprising – that the perceived impact of the rules on the ground is far weaker than the support for them. This appears as a strong indicator that people in war-affected countries want to see better respect for and implementation of the law.

For the purpose of analyzing the question of the relevance of the Geneva Conventions, I will look separately at their relevance in international (inter-state) and non-international armed conflicts and will provide in both cases some examples to illustrate their practical relevance.

When further analyzing the question of the Conventions ‘relevance we must bear in mind that for the most part the Geneva Conventions only regulate international armed conflicts, including situations of military occupation. While it is true such conflicts and occupations are – fortunately – not as frequent as in the past, we can only observe that they have not completely disappeared either. Recent examples of conflicts where the conventions were fully applicable are the conflicts in Afghanistan (2001-2002), the Iraq war (2003-2004), the conflict in Southern Lebanon (2006) and the conflict between Russia and Georgia (2008). Hence, to the extent that international conflicts and occupations continue to exist and will occur in the future, the Conventions remain valid and relevant. It is therefore very important to preserve this precious humanitarian acquis obtained through the universal acceptance of the Conventions. Whatever developments may occur in the future, these should build upon these existing rules.

To provide just one example of this aquis : The regulation of the conditions of detent ion has been fundamental in saving the lives and ensuring the well-being of many detainees. It is on the basis of these rules in the Geneva Conventions that the ICRC can carry out its work in the field, including its visits to detainees. The purpose of these visits is to prevent enforced disappearances, extra-judicial executions, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, to monitor the material conditions of detention and to restore family links i.a. through the exchange of Red Cross messages.

A few figures from recent international armed conflicts may suffice to illustrate how the Geneva Conventions remain relevant for war victims. In the course of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the ICRC visited, in the year 2000 alone, over 1,000 Ethiopian POWs and 4,300 civilian internees. In addition, we exchanged 16,326 messages between Ethiopian and Eritrean POWs and their families. The ICRC also organized safe passage across the front lines for 12,493 civilians of Ethiopian origin. In cooperation with the Eritrean Red Cross, the ICRC distributed aid to over 150,000 civilians affected by the conflict and provided surgical supplies to treat 10,000 war-wounded, in cooperation with the Ministry of Health.

In Iraq, the ICRC visited 6,100 POWs and 11,146 civilian internees and detainees held by the occupying powers between April 2003 and May 2004. In addition, over 16,000 Red Cross messages were exchanged. Even in the fairly short conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008, a number of POWs benefited from the protection and status conferred upon them by the Third Geneva Convention. On the basis of this Convention, the ICRC was able visit the POWs in question.

But not all the positive effects of the Geneva Conventions can be reflected in concrete figures. The real value of the Conventions lies not alone in the good they help to achieve, but maybe even more so in the yet greater evil they have helped to prevent. For example, we know from experience that the distinctive emblems of the Red Cross and Red Crescent have protected countless hospitals, medical units and personnel as well as innumerable wounded and sick. In the recent years we unfortunately have witnessed far too many examples of flagrant violations of both the distinctive emblems and the medical mission, however, and this is the point I would like to make: without the rules contained in the Conventions the situation would be far worse. Worse for the victims and far more difficult for those who try to assist and protect.

I submit therefore that the Geneva Conventions have served well over the past 60 years and that they remain highly relevant – and this certainly in situations of international armed conflicts, including in situations of occupation.

Is this assertion equally true for armed conflicts of a non-international character? From a phenomenological perspective it is undoubtedly true that these types of conflicts that are pre-dominant today. It is these conflicts varying greatly in shape and form that we have to generally deal with these days. They can be traditional internal civil wars, but they can also spill-over into other States. They can pitch the government against armed groups but they can also consist of armed groups fighting among themselves. They can involve third States or multinational forces fighting side by side with the government. The situations that come to mind include, for example, the Darfur region in Sudan, Colombia, Eastern DRC or today’s Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. The Geneva Conventions cover all of these situations. Indeed, common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions deals with any armed conflict not of an international character. That is to say that any armed conflict that it is not an inter-State conflict falls within the scope of common Article 3 of the Conventions. Although this is just one provision, it contains the essential rules in a nutshell:

  1. It requires humane treatment for all persons in enemy hands, regardless of how they may be legally or politically classified or in whose custody they may be. As a result, no one may be placed or treated outside of common Article 3, bereft of all protection.
  2. It requires that the wounded, sick and shipwrecked be collected and cared for.
  3. It grants the ICRC the right to offer its services to the parties to the conflict. On the basis of common Article 3, the ICRC systematically requests access to persons deprived of their liberty in connection with non-international armed conflicts, and such access is generally granted.
  4. Finally, it recognizes that the application of these rules in no way affects the legal status of the Parties to the conflict.

From this overview you can see that common Article 3 is not just an article like any other but indeed a mini-Convention within the Conventions. The International Court of Justice has called common Article 3 a reflection of “elementary considerations of humanity”. In the light of the prevalence of non-international armed conflicts, it remains a provision of utmost importance. As a result, with respect to non-international armed conflicts the Geneva Conventions remain extremely relevant today. Because of their universal acceptance, common Article 3 is applicable in any armed conflict not of an international character anywhere in the world.

In order to fully appreciate the relevance of the Geneva Conventions today, they have to be looked at in the proper perspective. They must not be viewed in isolation. Since their conclusion in 1949, they have been supplemented and developed by three Additional Protocols. The first two were adopted in 1977, more than 30 years ago, and the third more recently in 2005 introducing a new protective emblem, the Red Crystal.

The 1977 Additional Protocols were drawn up essentially as a response to changes in warfare, most notably the expansion of guerrilla warfare, and the increased suffering of civilians in armed conflict due in part to developments in weapons technology. They introduced essential rules relating to the conduct of hostilities and the methods and means of warfare, the aim of which was to strengthen protection for civilians. In particular, they formulated the important principle of distinction between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives. They have also expanded the list of fundamental guarantees applicable to all persons in the power of an adverse party.

The 1977 Additional Protocols were also a response to the proliferation of internal armed conflicts. Indeed, Additional Protocol II was the first treaty ever devoted exclusively to the protection of the victims of such conflicts elaborating upon the protection provided in common Article 3.

While the 1949 Geneva Conventions have been universally ratified, the Additional Protocols have not. At present, 168 States are party to Additional Protocol I and 164 States to Additional Protocol II. Although this places the 1977 Additional Protocols among the most widely accepted legal instruments in the world, we cannot be satisfied with this situation. The rules on the conduct of hostilities and the fundamental guarantees enshrined in the 1977 Additional Protocols are an absolute necessity. Their recognition and application is needed, now more than ever. Therefore, the ICRC believes that the ratification of the Additional Protocols should be a priority. We call on all States that have not yet done so, to adhere to these instruments. The universal ratification of the Geneva Conventions, together with their Additional Protocols, would establish a firm legal framework for the protection of war victims, wherever or whoever they may be. The current situation is unsatisfactory as it creates a patchwork of treaty obligations with the Protocols applicable in some conflicts but not in others.

At the request of the international community, the ICRC has tried to remedy this situation by identifying the rules of customary humanitarian law that apply regardless of the ratification record of treaty law. Yet, customary law cannot replace the legal certainty gained by ratification of treaties. In closing, therefore, I would like to reiterate our call for worldwide adherence to existing instruments of humanitarian law, in particular the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions.


Geneva Conventions, a series of international treaties concluded in Geneva between 1864 and 1949 for the purpose of ameliorating the effects of war on soldiers and civilians. Two additional protocols to the 1949 agreement were approved in 1977.

The development of the Geneva Conventions was closely associated with the Red Cross, whose founder, Henri Dunant, initiated international negotiations that produced the Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded in Time of War in 1864. This convention provided for (1) the immunity from capture and destruction of all establishments for the treatment of wounded and sick soldiers and their personnel, (2) the impartial reception and treatment of all combatants, (3) the protection of civilians providing aid to the wounded, and (4) the recognition of the Red Cross symbol as a means of identifying persons and equipment covered by the agreement.

The 1864 convention was ratified within three years by all the major European powers as well as by many other states. It was amended and extended by the second Geneva Convention in 1906, and its provisions were applied to maritime warfare through the Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907. The third Geneva Convention, the Convention Relating to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (1929), required that belligerents treat prisoners of war humanely, furnish information about them, and permit official visits to prison camps by representatives of neutral states.

Because some belligerents in World War II had abused the principles contained in earlier conventions, an International Red Cross conference in Stockholm in 1948 extended and codified the existing provisions. The conference developed four conventions, which were approved in Geneva on August 12, 1949: (1) the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, (2) the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick, and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea, (3) the Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, and (4) the Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

The first two conventions elaborated on the principle that the sick and wounded have neutral status. The prisoner-of-war convention further developed the 1929 convention by requiring humane treatment, adequate feeding, and the delivery of relief supplies and by forbidding pressure on prisoners to supply more than a minimum of information. The fourth convention contained little that had not been established in international law before World War II. Although the convention was not original, the disregard of humanitarian principles during the war made the restatement of its principles particularly important and timely. The convention forbade inter alia the deportation of individuals or groups, the taking of hostages, torture, collective punishment, offenses that constitute “outrages upon personal dignity,” the imposition of judicial sentences (including executions) without due-process guarantees, and discriminatory treatment on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs.

In the decades following World War II, the large number of anticolonial and insurrectionary wars threatened to render the Geneva Conventions obsolete. After four years of Red Cross-sponsored negotiations, two additional protocols to the 1949 conventions, covering both combatants and civilians, were approved in 1977. The first, Protocol I, extended protection under the Geneva and Hague conventions to persons involved in wars of “self-determination,” which were redefined as international conflicts. The protocol also enabled the establishment of fact-finding commissions in cases of alleged breaches of the convention. The second protocol, Protocol II, extended human rights protections to persons involved in severe civil conflicts, which had not been covered by the 1949 accords. It specifically prohibited collective punishment, torture, the taking of hostages, acts of terrorism, slavery, and “outrages on the personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault.”

The end of the Cold War, during which tensions between ethnic groups had been suppressed in states throughout eastern and central Europe and elsewhere, gave rise to a number of civil wars, blurring the distinction between internal and international conflicts and complicating the application of relevant legal rules. In a number of cases (e.g., in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Somalia), the United Nations Security Council declared that internal conflicts amounted to a threat to or a breach of international peace and security, which thus made its resolutions on the conflicts binding on the combatants. Because of the Security Council’s activities in expanding the definition of international armed conflicts, an increasing number of rules outlined in the Geneva Conventions and their protocols have come to be regarded as binding on all states. Such rules include the humane treatment of civilians and of prisoners of war.

More than 180 states have become parties to the 1949 conventions. Approximately 150 states are party to Protocol I; more than 145 states are party to Protocol II, though the United States is not. In addition, more than 50 states have made declarations accepting the competence of international fact-finding commissions to investigate allegations of grave breaches or other serious violations of the conventions or of Protocol I.

The importance of the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols was reflected in the establishment of war-crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia (1993) and Rwanda (1994) and by the Rome Statute (1998), which created an International Criminal Court.



This Convention represents the fourth version of the Geneva Convention on the wounded and sick after those adopted in 1864, 1906 and 1929. The fundamental principles as well as the division into chapters remained the same as in the preceding version with the exception of the new introductory chapter on general provisions. Changes were made especially in Chapter IV (personnel). Hitherto, medical personnel and chaplains falling into enemy hands had to be immediately repatriated. The 1949 Convention, taking account of changed conditions of warfare, provides that they may in certain circumstances be retained to care for prisoners of war. The provisions on medical equipment were correspondingly altered. In the chapter on medical transports it was provided that medical aircraft may in certain circumstances fly over neutral territory. Some clarifications were made as regards the article on the use of the emblem (Article 44).


The present Convention replaced Hague Convention (X) of 1907 for the Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention.

It contains 63 Articles whereas the 1907 Convention had only 28. This extension is mainly due to the fact that the present Convention is conceived as a complete and independent Convention whereas the 1907 Convention restricted itself to adapting to maritime warfare the principles of the Convention on the wounded and sick in land warfare. In its structure the 1949 Convention follows closely the provisions of Geneva Convention (I) of 1949.


The present Convention replaced the Prisoners of War Convention of 1929. It contains 143 Articles whereas the 1929 Convention had only 97. It became necessary to revise the 1929 Convention on a number of points owing to the changes that had occurred in the conduct of warfare and the consequences thereof, as well as in the living condition of peoples. Experience had shown that the daily life of prisoners depended specifically on the interpretation given to the general regulations. Consequently, certain regulations were given a more explicit form which was lacking in the preceding provisions. Since the text of the Convention is to be posted in all prisoner of war camps (see Article 41) it has to be comprehensible not only to the authorities but also to the ordinary reader at any time. The categories of persons entitled to prisoner of war status were broadened in accordance with Conventions I and II. The conditions and places of captivity were more precisely defined, in particular with regard to the labour of prisoners of war, their financial resources, the relief they receive and the judicial proceedings instituted against them. The Convention establishes the principle that prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities (Article 118).


The Geneva Conventions which were adopted before 1949 were concerned with combatants only, not with civilians. Some provisions concerning the protection of populations 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 warfare 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 the 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 forty 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 – Articles 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 (see Article 154 of the Convention).


Article 1(4) provides that armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination, alien occupation or racist regimes are to be considered international conflicts.

Part II (Articles 8-34) develops the rules of the First and the Second Geneva Conventions on wounded, sick and shipwrecked. It extends the protection of the Conventions to civilian medical personnel, equipment and supplies and to civilian units and transports and contains detailed provisions on medical transportation.

Part III and several chapters of Part IV (Articles 35-60) deal with the conduct of hostilities, i.e. questions which hitherto were regulated by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and by customary international law. Their reaffirmation and development is important in view of the age of the Hague Conventions and of the new States which had no part in their elaboration. Article 43 and 44 give a new definition of armed forces and combatants. Among the most important Articles are those on the protection of the civilian population against the effects of hostilities. They contain a definition of military objectives and prohibitions of attack on civilian persons and objects. Further Articles (61-79) deal with the protection of civil defence organizations, relief actions and the treatment of persons in the power of a party to a conflict.

Part V (Articles 80-91) brings some new elements to the problem of the execution of the Conventions and the Protocol.


The only provision applicable to non-international armed conflicts before the adoption of the present Protocol was Article 3 common to all four Geneva Conventions of 1949. This Article proved to be inadequate in view of the fact that about 80% of the victims of armed conflicts since 1945 have been victims of non-international conflicts and that non-international conflicts are often fought with more cruelty than international conflicts. The aim of the present Protocol is to extend the essential rules of the law of armed conflicts to internal wars. The fear that the Protocol might affect State sovereignty, prevent governments from effectively maintaining law and order within their borders and that it might be invoked to justify outside intervention led to the decision of the Diplomatic Conference at its fourth session to shorten and simplify the Protocol. Instead of the 47 Articles proposed by the ICRC the Conference adopted only 28. The essential substance of the draft was, however, maintained. The part on methods and means of combat was deleted, but its basic principles are to be found in Article 4 (fundamental guarantees). The provisions on the activity of impartial humanitarian organizations were adopted in a less binding form than originally foreseen. The restrictive definition of the material field of application in Article 1 will have the effect that Protocol II will be applicable to a smaller range of internal conflicts than Article 3 common to the Conventions of 1949.


Since the nineteenth century the red cross and red crescent emblems have been used as universal symbols of assistance for armed conflict victims. With the adoption of an additional emblem – the red crystal – a new chapter in their long history has just been written.

The original Geneva Convention, adopted on 22 August 1864, established the red cross emblem. From the beginning, the emblem was a visible sign of the neutral status and the protection granted by international humanitarian law to armed forces’ medical services and volunteers belonging to relief societies for wounded military personnel. At the time, the adoption of a single distinctive symbol appeared to be an essential condition for this protection. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the red crescent and the red lion and sun  were used by some States and relief societies instead of the red cross. Taking note of the fait accompli, the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armies in the Field of 27 July 1929 granted international recognition to these two additional emblems. The Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 subsequently confirmed all three emblems.

The Commentary on Article 38 of the First Geneva Convention of 1949 clearly states that these emblems are intended “to signify one thing only – something which is, however, of immense importance: respect for the individual who suffers and is defenceless, who must be aided, whether friend or enemy, without distinction of nationality, race, religion, class or opinion.” Despite this assertion, the emblems are sometimes perceived in particular contexts as having a religious or political connotation. This perception is the cause of two major difficulties for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. First, it challenges the notion that neutrality and impartiality serve as the basis for the activities of all components of the Movement. As a consequence, the emblems are not given the respect they are due, which diminishes the protection afforded those displaying them. Second, it has led some States and relief societies to refuse to adopt any of the existing emblems on the grounds that none is suitable for them. Any such refusal prevents the Movement from attaining true universality, since its statutes lay down the use of one or the other of these symbols as a necessary condition for a National Society to be recognized and to become a full member of the Movement.

In order to correct these two problems, the States party to the Geneva Conventions adopted a third protocol additional to the Conventions at a diplomatic conference held in Geneva from 5 to 8 December 2005. This instrument recognizes an additional emblem – composed of a red frame in the shape of a square on edge on a white ground – commonly referred to as the red crystal.[3] The shape and name of this additional emblem were the result of a long selection process, the goal of which was to come up with a result devoid of any political, religious or other connotation and which could thus be used all over the world. The red crystal is not intended to replace the cross and crescent but to provide a further option.

The persons and entities authorized to display the red crystal are the same as those entitled to use the emblems recognized by the Geneva Conventions of 1949. These include in particular the medical services of the armed forces of States, civilian hospitals with explicit authorization and the various components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – namely, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the National Societies, and their International Federation. The recognized emblems are equivalent in meaning. They must be treated equally and receive equal protection in the national legislation of States.

The emblems may be employed in two different ways. As a protective device, an emblem is the visible sign of protection conferred by the Geneva Conventions. As an indicative device, an emblem shows that a person or object is linked to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Additional Protocol III provides for the red crystal in its pure form to be used as a protective device. If used as an indicative device, however, the red crystal may have incorporated within it one of the emblems recognized by the Geneva Conventions, a combination of these emblems or another emblem which has been in effective use by a State party to Additional Protocol III and was the subject of a communication to the other States Parties and the ICRC prior to the adoption of the Protocol. It is important to note that Additional Protocol III authorizes not only the permanent substitution of the red crystal for the red cross or red crescent as described above, but also temporary use of the red crystal in exceptional circumstances to enhance protection of armed forces’ medical services or to facilitate the work of National Societies.

Additional Protocol III is drawn up in such a way as to prevent any future proliferation of other emblems.


  1. The Islamic Republic of Iran – the only State to have employed the red lion and sun – has since abandoned its use.
  2. Commentary on Article 38 of the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, 1952, p. 305.
  3. Protocol Additional III refers to this additional emblem as the “third Protocol emblem.” However, paragraph 14 of the final act of the diplomatic conference on the adoption of Protocol III specifies in this regard: “Although Protocol III referred to the additional emblem as the ‘third Protocol emblem,’ the ICRC and the [International Federation] informed the Conference that the designation ‘red crystal’ had gained currency and would be introduced formally at the next International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.”



The Geneva Conventions 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).

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are at the core of international humanitarian law, the body of international law that regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its effects.  They specifically protect people who are not taking part in the hostilities (civilians, health workers and aid workers) and those who are no longer participating in the hostilities, such as wounded, sick and shipwrecked soldiers and prisoners of war.  The Conventions and their Protocols call for measures to be taken to prevent or put an end to all breaches. They contain stringent rules to deal with what are known as “grave breaches”. Those responsible for grave breaches must be sought, tried or extradited, whatever nationality they may hold.