The Geneva Conventions were adopted 60 years ago, on August 12th 1949. Yesterday, to mark the anniversary, Jakob Kellenberger, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), addressed a diplomatic gathering in Geneva and various commemorative events were organised across the world. A one-day seminar on international humanitarian law was notably held in Beijing, there was a presentation on the relevance of the Geneva Conventions in Contemporary Armed Conflicts in Addis Ababa, a public forum was held in Manila to mark the anniversary, and a conference with the American Red Cross was organised in Washington.
Jakob Kellenberger began his address with the following words:
‘We gather here to mark a significant coming of age. Sixty years ago today, the
Geneva Conventions were adopted. This defining event played a central role in
expanding the protection provided to victims of armed conflicts. It also
expanded the ICRC's humanitarian mandate, and facilitated our access as well as
our dialogue with States.’
He continued to outline the evolution of armed conflict over the past 60 years, how international humanitarian law had adapted to the changing nature of warfare and the new challenges which it faced today. Statistics quoted in an article on the website of the BBC revealed a considerable increase in the number of civilian casualties from the First World War to the Second World War. During the First World War, it is estimated that ten soldiers were killed for every civilian; during the Second World War, the ratio of soldiers to civilians killed increased to 50 to 50. Today it is estimated that the figures are almost reversed: ten civilians are killed for every one soldier.
To mark the anniversary, the ICRC notably commissioned Ipsos to carry out a survey on what people in countries affected by war consider acceptable behaviour during hostilities and on the effectiveness of the Geneva Conventions. The research is entitled ‘Our World. Views from the Field’ and was carried out in Afghanistan, Columbia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia and the Philippines. The ICRC’s director for international law, Philip Spoerri, presented the results of the survey:
‘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 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols form the core of the international humanitarian law (IHL), the body of law that regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its effects. They are aimed specifically at the protection of those who are not taking part in the hostilities (civilians and aid workers) and those who are no longer able to fight such as wounded and sick soldiers and prisoners of war. The 1949 Geneva Conventions are divided into four parts.
The first Geneva Convention protects wounded or sick soldiers on land during war and also provides for the protection of medical and religious personnel. The second Geneva Convention protects wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel at sea during war. It is similar to the first convention in terms of structure and content but applies specifically to war at sea. The third Geneva Convention applies to prisoners of war and the fourth Geneva Convention provides for the protection of civilians, including in occupied territory.
The history of the Geneva Conventions does not begin with the Second World War. Various conventions to protect those involved in armed conflict were adopted from the mid-19th century onwards. The first Geneva Convention, for example, is the fourth version of the convention on the sick and wounded which was initially adopted in 1864. However, the conventions adopted before 1949 were restricted to combatants and did not apply to civilians. The Second World War had revealed the disastrous effects of war on civilian populations and the consequent need for adequate protection. The existing conventions were thus expanded and formalised in the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The 1949 Geneva Conventions also include Article 3, which is common to all four conventions and, for the first time, made all the essential rules of the four conventions applicable to conflicts of a non-international character. Three further protocols were added to the Geneva Conventions in 1977 and 2005.
The Geneva Conventions entered into force on October 21st, 1950 and ratification grew steadily from then onwards. In the 1950s, 74 states ratified the Conventions; 48 states did so during the 1960s; 20 States signed on during the 1970s; and another 20 States did so during the 1980s. Twenty-six countries ratified the Conventions in the early 1990s, largely in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia. Since 2000, seven new states have ratified the conventions, bringing the total number of ratifications to 194 and making the Geneva Conventions universally applicable.
Despite their universal ratification, the Geneva Conventions are not always respected and considerable obstacles remain.
To mark the anniversary, further events are planned worldwide over the coming months. For more information, visit the website of the International Committee of the Red Cross.