Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols

The Geneva Conventions consist in total of four agreements concluded between states in the still valid version of 12 August 1949. They lay down internationally binding rules for the treatment of prisoners of war, wounded soldiers and civilians in time of war. Today (2017) 196 states, which includes every member state of the United Nations, have ratified these treaties. Their high level of approval and global application have made the Geneva Conventions a core component of international humanitarian law. In fact, they amount to the only universally recognized international arrangement.

The historical roots of the first Geneva Convention lie directly in an initiative by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), founded by a Swiss businessman named Henry Dunant in 1863. It was just one year later, on 22 August 1864, that twelve states agreed at a conference in Geneva on the first set of rules for protecting wounded and sick soldiers in land warfare and protecting the persons and facilities trying to take care of them.

This First Geneva Convention set in motion a process of international law-making to regulate warfare that more and more countries supported over subsequent decades. Important milestones in this process were The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, establishing the “laws and customs of war on land”. They determined, for the first time, a definition and status of combatants and rules on the treatment of prisoners of war and use of weapons. The Tenth Hague Convention, agreed in 1899, extended the rules of the first Geneva Convention to maritime warfare. Responding to new military developments and weapon technologies, especially in the two World Wars of the 20th century, the Convention provisions have been continuously revised and extended. For example, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banned the use of chemical and biological weapons. And, on 27 July 1929, the Geneva Convention “relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War” established arrangements that went beyond land warfare rules under The Hague Conventions. However, the 1929 Geneva Convention proved of little benefit during World War II because Germany failed to abide by it and other countries, including the Soviet Union and Japan, did not sign it in the first place.

The four Geneva Conventions adopted in 1949 represent, in large parts, a revision and generally a broadening of the preceding treaties. Convention I “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field” is based on the First Geneva Convention of 1864. Convention II “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea” replaces the Tenth Hague Convention of 1899. Convention III “relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War” is rooted in the two Hague Conventions and in the Geneva Convention of 1929. It addresses the plight of captured soldiers, laying down their right to physical and mental well-being and to medical care and outlawing “outrages upon personal dignity”.

An innovative in international humanitarian law can be seen in Convention IV, since, for the first time, “the Protection of Civilian Persons in Times of War” was made the centre of an international agreement. The convention largely contains provisions on the treatment of non-combatants who have been interned by a foreign power, while also outlawing attacks on civilian medical facilities and medical transports.

The Geneva Conventions have been supplemented since 8 June 1977 by two Additional Protocols. The first protocol contains some additional provisions on the protection of civilians and the wounded and outlaws the use of weapons that “cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering”. Above all, however, the new protocol reflects changed conflict settings and extends the scope of the Geneva Conventions to include “international armed conflicts” such as “peoples fighting against colonial domination, alien occupation or racist regimes in the exercise of their right to self-determination”.

The second Additional Protocol defines the basic rights of civilians in “non-international armed conflicts”. Non-international conflicts are generally understood to mean disputes on the sovereign territory of a state party “between the armed forces of a state and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups”. The Additional Protocols have now been ratified by the vast majority of states.

The third and, so far, last “Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions” was adopted on 8 December 2005. It supplements the three previously adopted protective emblems used for medical personnel and facilities (Red Cross, Red Crescent and the now obsolete “red lion and sun”) with a fourth symbol without any religious, ethnic or political connotations: a red square standing on one corner set against a white background, known as the Red Crystal.

Any violations of the provisions of the Conventions and their Additional Protocols can be investigated by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, an ICRC body constituted in 1991. It is not, however, endowed with sovereign powers. The conventions themselves do not lay down sanctions to be imposed in cases of infringement. Penalties must, therefore, be enforced either under the domestic laws of signatory states (in Germany, the Code on International Criminal Law (VStGB) has been the applicable instrument since 2002) or, in certain cases, by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which can prosecute serious violations of the Geneva Conventions.

Current changes in the nature of warfare or in the way parties to a war classify those involved are creating a situation in which large groups of combatants do not enjoy the protection of the Geneva Conventions – in particular, their rights as prisoners of war. Two cases have come to the fore. On the one hand, there are “Islamist” insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan who are classified by the United States as “unlawful enemy combatants”. The US-American view is that this status can justify internment under conditions that patently contravene the Third and some provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

On the other hand, there is a dispute over the international legal status of armed members of so-called private military companies, in particular, the kind widely used in the field as contractors of the US government itself. Some of them might well be considered “mercenaries” under Article 47 of the first Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions and, as such, would not enjoy the rights accorded to regular prisoners of war. One could, however, invoke Article 5 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which accords them the right to a “fair and regular trial” and to be “treated with humanity”.

Sources and further information

BICC 11/2013

Buchhandlungen bangen um die Buchpreisbindung

Data tables

For some select map layers, the information portal ‘War and Peace’ provides the user with all used data sets as tables.

More ...
Magnifying Glass in front of a Boston map

Country portraits

In the country reports, data and information are collected by country and put into tables that are used in the modules as a basis for maps and illustrations.

More ...
Compass with Mirror

Navigation and operation

The information and data of each module are primarily made available as selectable map layers and are complemented by texts and graphs. The map layers can be found on the right hand side and are listed according to themes and sub-themes.

More ...