Geneva Conventions

Categories: A Historical Event


Now we live in relatively peaceful time, but it wasn’t always like that. All those wars were bloody, sometimes even too bloody, so people needed to create some rules. So those rules were created.

Four Conventions for One Purpose

Not everybody knows that, but there were four treaties, not just one. And even then, they were modified later with three amendment protocols. I will start with a brief overview. First Geneva Convention was adopted in 1864 for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field.

Second Geneva Convention was adopted in 1906 for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea. Third Geneva Convention was adopted in 1929, and it was related to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Finally, Fourth Geneva Convention was adopted in 1949, and it was related to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. It collected all points of previous one while adding many new points.

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So, when people say about singular Geneva Convention, they usually mean this one. Later is was modified with two protocols in 1977 when modifications were related to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts and the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts.

Latest modification was made in 2005 when an Additional Distinctive Emblem was adopted. The Conventions are inextricably linked to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is both the instigator for the inception and enforcer of the articles in these conventions.

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They changed the world with their aspiration to protect the rights of non-combatants. This quote is a nice example: Protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honour, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall, at all times, be humanely treated, and shall be protected, especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity.

Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault. Without prejudice to the provisions relating to their state of health, age and sex, all protected persons shall be treated with the same consideration by the Party to the conflict in whose power they are, without any adverse distinction based, in particular, on race, religion or political opinion. However, the Parties to the conflict may take such measures of control and security in regard to protected persons as may be necessary as a result of the war. — Article 27, Fourth Geneva Convention (1949)

The First Geneva Convention

The First Geneva Convention, for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field, defines “the basis on which rest the rules of international law for the protection of the victims of armed conflicts. It was adopted in 1864 and then updated three times. Back then, it was a very critical period for European history, both military and political. Situation in Western Europe was relatively peaceful between the fall of the first Napoleon (the Battle of Waterloo in 1815) and the rise of Napoleon III (Italian campaign of 1859), but when the conflict in the Crimea took place, powers couldn’t maintain peace anymore. Henri Dunant was a man who gave the world idea of creating an international set of laws governing the treatment and care for the wounded and prisoners of war.

He witnessed the Battle of Solferino in 1859, fought between Austrian and French-Piedmontese armies in Northern Italy. Around forty thousands of soldiers were wounded and left on the battlefield. The reason for that was a lack of personnel, facilities, and truces to give the soldiers any kind of medical aid. After witnessing all that Dunant decided to act. So, after his return to Geneva Dunant used his membership in the Geneva Society for Public Welfare to urge the calling together of an international conference to create new rules in terms of war. Other things that Henri Dunant did were publishing his account Un Souvenir de Solferino and helping with foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863. So, this new Red Cross Committee started to work, with best regards to help people, living in zones of war.

Even if it was said that safeguarding the health and physical well-being of people is primarily the duty and responsibility of a nation they are related to, still understood that it wasn’t enough and in times of war people would need some “voluntary agencies to supplement”. Obviously it meant creating official agencies to help people on the battlefields in every country. Last thing that was missing was the list of rules to govern activities of the Red Cross Committee itself and any other agencies or companies which were involved.

The big date was August 22, 1864. Several European states gathered in Geneva, Switzerland and signed the First Geneva Convention. List of states included: Baden (nowadays being a part of Germany), Belgium, Denmark, France, Hesse (also being a part of Germany nowadays), Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia (part of Germany now), Spain, Switzerland, and Württemberg (which is also a part of today’s Germany). Later, two more countries joined and signed the Convention, which were Norway and Sweden. .

The Second Geneva Convention

The Second Geneva Convention was adopted to protect the human rights of wounded, sick, and shipwrecked soldiers that were found at sea. This act was made because of the growing number of battle ship fleets being formed and the mass amounts of war occurring at sea. The First Geneva Convention only covered the wars on land and now it covered international battles at sea. This bill extended all rights that a wounded soldier received from the first convention to soldiers at sea and made it illegal to not take in shipwrecked crewmen. The Second Geneva Convention was an important step considering the First World War was soon to come. The Second Geneva Convention was created because of the new threat of large naval fleets. The only difference between the First and Second Geneva Conventions is that the Second calls for the protection of human rights of soldiers that are at sea.

Because of the future battles at sea, this plan proved to be highly necessary in order to make sure no cruelties were occurring over the deep blue sea. This plan was effective but did not cover very many scenarios or occurrences. This addition to the First Convention was necessary and without it, there would have been thousands of more casualties during the two World Wars. So, the Convention was adopted in 1906, right after Russo-Japanese war, and was later updated two times. The actual document contained 63 articles, covering many aspects related to treating people during the wars, both on the land and on the sea. Now let’s look at the most important provisions:

* Articles 12 and 18 require all parties to protect and care for the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked. * Article 21 allows appeals to be made to neutral vessels to help collect and care for the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked. The neutral vessels cannot be captured. * Articles 36 and 37 protect religious and medical personnel serving on a combat ship. * Article 22 states that hospital ships cannot be used for any military purpose, and owing to their humanitarian mission, they cannot be attacked or captured. * Article 14 clarifies that although a warship cannot capture a hospital ship’s medical staff, it can hold the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked as prisoners of war. It was adopted by 33 countries, including China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. However, at the same time it was rejected by Great Britain, Japan and Korea.

The Third Geneva Convention

So, the third one of four conventions was mainly related to prisoners of war and their treatment. According to this Geneva Convention no prisoner of war could be forced to disclose to his captor any information other than his identity (i.e., his name and rank, but not his military unit, home town, or address of relatives). Every prisoner of war was entitled to adequate food and medical care and had the right to exchange correspondence and receive parcels. He was required to observe ordinary military discipline and courtesy, but he could attempt to escape at his own risk. Once recaptured, he was not to be punished for his attempt. Officers were to receive pay either according to the pay scale of their own country or to that of their captor, whichever was less; they could not be required to work. Enlisted men might be required to work for pay, but the nature and location of their work were not to expose them to danger, and in no case could they be required to perform work directly related to military operations.

Camps were to be open to inspection by authorized representatives of a neutral power (during World War II, Switzerland and Sweden acted as protecting powers). Article 4 defines who could be called prisoner of war. Article 5 specifies that prisoners of war (as defined in article 4) are protected from the time of their capture until their final repatriation. It also specifies that when there is any doubt whether a combatant belongs to the categories in article 4, they should be treated as such until their status has been determined by a competent tribunal. Article 12 states that prisoners of war are the responsibility of the state not the persons who capture them and that they may not be transferred to a state that is not party to the Convention. Articles 13 to 16 state that prisoners of war must be treated humanely without any adverse discrimination and that their medical needs must be met. The Convention was signed by 47 governments.

Chief among the nations that did not adhere to the Geneva Convention of 1929 were Japan and the USSR. Japan, however, gave a qualified promise (1942) to abide by the Geneva rules, and the USSR announced (1941) that it would observe the terms of the Hague Convention of 1907, which did not provide (as does the Geneva Convention) for neutral inspection of prison camps, for the exchange of prisoners’ names, and for correspondence with prisoners. So, that could help to change the situation, including time during World War II. The United States and Great Britain mostly honored the Convention and its rules. At the same time, Germany didn’t treat all prisoners equally. While American and British prisoners got good treatment in Germany, people from Poland got probably the worst possible. The International Red Cross at Geneva tried to collect as much information about prisoners as it could, so situation was under control.

The Fourth Geneva Convention

The Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, also known as The Fourth Geneva Convention, was adopted in 1949. Not only it had many new points, but also points from all previous Geneva Conventions were reviewed and expanded. The actual document consists of four parts:

Part I. General Provisions. It includes the basic things, like explanation who is a “protected person”: Persons protected by the Convention are those who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals. Document also demands a lawful treatment of: noncombatants, soldiers who laid down their arms, or wounded, unable to continue the fight, combatants. Part II. General Protection of Populations Against Certain Consequences of War. Here text says about protection of civilians. Important thing is that no kind of discrimination by nationality, race, religion, or political views is appropriate. Part III. Status and Treatment of Protected Persons. This part includes many different things about actions on occupied territories, like population transfer, care and education of children, destruction of property, medical services, etc.

It also includes topic of collective punishment: Article 33. No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. Pillage is prohibited. Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited. Part IV. Execution of the Convention. This part is almost the same in documents of all four conventions and it says that this part contains “the formal or diplomatic provisions which it is customary to place at the end of an international Convention to settle the procedure for bringing it into effect are grouped together under this heading”. This time the amount of countries signed was even bigger than before, consisting of 194 countries.

However, 16 countries didn’t sign it; those were Aruba, Bouvet Island, Faroe Islands, Guernsey, Heard and Mc Donald Islands, Isle of Man, Jersey, Mayotte, Norfolk Island, Northern Mariana Islands, National Authority, Reunion Island, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, and Tibet. Even if the Convention included almost everything that was needed, later it was updated with 3 protocols added as amendments: Protocol I (1977) relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts Protocol II (1977) relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts Protocol III (2005) relating to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem.

Protocol I

So, in 1977 Geneva Convention was updated with two additional protocols added as amendments. It was necessary because since 1949 worldwide weaponry and conditions have changed. Logically, it’s related to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts. By the moment Protocol I was ratified by governments of 170 countries. The actual document consists of 102 articles. Mostly it just rephrases statements from original Geneva Conventions, but it also includes many new interesting things:

Articles 51 and 54 outlaw indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, and destruction of food, water, and other materials needed for survival. Indiscriminate attacks include directly attacking civilian (non-military) targets, but also using technology such as biological weapons, nuclear weapons and land mines, whose scope of destruction cannot be limited. A total war that does not distinguish between civilian and military targets is considered a war crime. Articles 56 and 53 outlaw attacks on dams, dikes, nuclear generating stations, and places of worship. The first three are “works and installations containing dangerous forces” and may be attacked but only in ways that do not threaten to release the dangerous forces (i.e., it is permissible to attempt to capture them but not to try to destroy them).

Articles 76 and 77, 15 and 79 provide special protections for women, children, and civilian medical personnel, and provide measures of protection for journalists. Article 77 forbids conscription of children under age 15 into the armed forces. It does allow, however, for persons under the age of 15 to participate voluntarily. Articles 43 and 44 clarify the military status of members of guerrilla forces. Combatant and prisoner of war status is granted 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 attack. Article 35 bans 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.” Article 85 states that it is a war crime to use one of the protective emblems recognized by the Geneva Conventions to deceive the opposing forces (perfidy). Articles 17 and 81 authorize the ICRC, national societies, or other impartial humanitarian organizations to provide assistance to the victims of war.

Protocol II

While Protocol I was related to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts, Protocol II, also added in 1977, was related to the protection of non-international armed conflicts. After all those Conventions many rules existed, related to international warfare, but somehow, before the Protocol II was added, nobody thought much about internal conflicts even though many countries had them. So, even since the last Geneva Convention, some delegates wanted to make laws and set a new bar for minimal humanitarian standards in cases when the situation had all the properties and characteristics of war whilst not being an international conflict.

Even before the addition of Protocol II Geneva Conventions of 1949 had Article 3 related to non-international conflicts taking place in bounds of a single country. However, it wasn’t enough. Article 3 had only few basic things to protect victims of non-international conflicts, like: * Persons taking no active part in hostilities should be treated humanely (including military persons who have ceased to be active as a result of sickness, injury, or detention). * The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.

Since Article 3 was too brief and didn’t cover many important aspects, many diplomats wanted to clarify it all in a new Protocol and to extend the scope of international law to cover additional humanitarian rights in the context of internal conflicts. However, the debate around this new protocol had two totally different ideas: 1) First said that for victim of a conflict there is no difference if that conflict is international or not, so all the distinction for those people can only be artificial.

2) And another one said that in case of internal conflict international laws should not apply, meaning that country had all rights to do whatever it wants inside its boundaries. As for now, Protocol 3 had been ratified by governments of 165 countries. Even though The United States was among few countries who just signed the protocol with the intention of ratifying it, the International Committee of the Red Cross made an appeal in 1997, saying that a number of the articles contained in both protocols are recognized as rules of customary international law valid for all states, whether or not they have ratified them.

Protocol III

The third and the last additional protocol of Geneva Conventions was added in 2005. It was devoted to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem. It was really needed in cases of war for soldiers to know who they should not attack. Actually, the emblem itself was established much earlier, during the first Geneva Convention of 1864. It was really needed, because weapons at those times already were quite deadly, and often medics and people of other supporting professions were shot right on the battlefield while trying to help wounded soldiers. So a part of the first Geneva Convention was just right about creating a distinctive emblem for people of those professions.

However, it wasn’t easy. The first symbol was just a red cross on the white background, but it looked very similar to the Christian Cross. That was the reason why Muslim nations totally rejected it. But in 1876 the Ottoman Empire introduced another symbol – the Red Crescent, as more neutral and less Christian emblem. After that additional emblems were proposed by the Red Cross Society of Eritrea, such as sun of Persia or the red lion. At the same time Magen David Adom of Israel proposed the Red Shield of David as another alternative emblem. After all, the world needed the new symbol for medics to be: * Neutral and free of religious, cultural or political connotations.

Otherwise it would conflict with the whole idea of giving the medical personnel neutral humanitarian status in armed conflicts. * Officially acclaimed. Even if the Red Shield of David was used in some places after Magen David Adom’s efforts, it wasn’t officially acclaimed by the National Societies. And without membership in one of those people were not eligible for certain protections under the Geneva Conventions. Fortunately a comprehensive solution was found at last with the adoption of Protocol III in 2005.

For Magen David Adom there was a nice alternative – the Red Crystal, so they should’ve just displayed it in the context of international conflict to have all protection needed. All three emblems are appointed the same legal status, which means they are totally equal. Emblems can have a protective use, as well as an indicative use. Medical and religious personnel may mark themselves, their vehicles, ships and buildings as a sign of their humanitarian mission and protected status under the Geneva Conventions. Members of armed forces can also use it to show that they are protected by Geneva Conventions. However, the misuse of the emblem may be considered as a war crime.


Thanks to all these conventions and their protocols, world is safer and more civilized nowadays, even I the times of war. People feel themselves protected, which means better future for all of us!



  1. Bernett, Angela. The Geneva Convention: The Hidden Origins of the Red Cross. The History Press, Stroud, 2006. Borch, Fred L., and Solis, Gary. Geneva Conventions.
  2. Kaplan Publishing, New York City, 2010. Grossman, Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.
  3. Back Bay Books, New York City, 2009. Byers, Michael. War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict. Grove Press, New York City, 2007.

Web Sites:

  1. “Citizens Interfaith Coalition to Reaffirm and Extend the Geneva Conventions”. Dennis Rivers. 11/11/2011.
  2. “Geneva Conventions”. Multiple authors. 11/23/2011.
  3. “The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols”. International Committee of the Red Cross. 11/12/2011.

Cite this page

Geneva Conventions. (2016, Oct 02). Retrieved from

Geneva Conventions

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