The Geneva Conventions are a set of treaties regarding humanitarian issues of civilians and combatants in wartime. There are four Geneva Conventions, last revised in 1949, and three additional Protocols - two from 1977, and one from 2005.
International Committee of the Red Cross provides summaries and links to the complete texts and protocols:
The 1949 Geneva Conventions
- The first Geneva Convention protects wounded and sick soldiers on land during war.
This Convention represents the fourth updated version of the Geneva Convention on the wounded and sick following those adopted in 1864, 1906 and 1929. It contains 64 articles. These provide protection for the wounded and sick, but also for medical and religious personnel, medical units and medical transports. The Convention also recognizes the distinctive emblems. It has two annexes containing a draft agreement relating to hospital zones and a model identity card for medical and religious personnel.
- The second Geneva Convention protects wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel at sea during war.
This Convention replaced Hague Convention of 1907 for the Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention. It closely follows the provisions of the first Geneva Convention in structure and content. It has 63 articles specifically applicable to war at sea. For example, it protects hospital ships. It has one annex containing a model identity card for medical and religious personnel.
- The third Geneva Convention applies to prisoners of war.
This Convention replaced the Prisoners of War Convention of 1929. It contains 143 articles whereas the 1929 Convention had only 97. 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, particularly 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. The Convention has five annexes containing various model regulations and identity and other cards.
- The fourth Geneva Convention affords protection to civilians, including in occupied territory.
The Geneva Conventions, which were adopted before 1949. were concerned with combatants only, not with civilians. 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 is composed of 159 articles. It contains a short section concerning the general protection of populations against certain consequences of war, without addressing the conduct of hostilities, as such, which was later examined in the Additional Protocols of 1977. The bulk of the Convention deals with the status and treatment of protected persons, distinguishing between the situation of foreigners on the territory of one of the parties to the conflict and that of civilians in occupied territory. It spells out the obligations of the Occupying Power vis-à-vis the civilian population and contains detailed provisions on humanitarian relief for populations in occupied territory. It also contains a specific regime for the treatment of civilian internees. It has three annexes containing a model agreement on hospital and safety zones, model regulations on humanitarian relief and model cards.
Common Article 3
Article 3, common to the four Geneva Conventions, marked a breakthrough, as it covered, for the first time, situations of non-international armed conflicts. These types of conflicts vary greatly. They include traditional civil wars, internal armed conflicts that spill over into other States or internal conflicts in which third States or a multinational force intervenes alongside the government. Common Article 3 establishes fundamental rules from which no derogation is permitted. It is like a mini-Convention within the Conventions as it contains the essential rules of the Geneva Conventions in a condensed format and makes them applicable to conflicts not of an international character:
- It requires humane treatment for all persons in enemy hands, without any adverse distinction. It specifically prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment, the taking of hostages and unfair trial.
- It requires that the wounded, sick and shipwrecked be collected and cared for.
- It grants the ICRC the right to offer its services to the parties to the conflict.
- It calls on the parties to the conflict to bring all or parts of the Geneva Conventions into force through so-called special agreements.
- It recognizes that the application of these rules does not affect the legal status of the parties to the conflict.
- Given that most armed conflicts today are non-international, applying Common Article 3 is of the utmost importance. Its full respect is required.