Today, 12 August, is the 61st anniversary of the signing of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the international treaties designed to protect soldiers and civilians during armed conflicts. The treaties became the focus of international attention in 2002 when the Bush administration controversially concluded that al Qaeda and the Taliban were not entitled to their protections. President Obama has reaffirmed America's "commitment" to the Geneva Conventions but has not been specific about how the Conventions apply to al Qaeda and Taliban detainees. To re-assert U.S. leadership with respect to the laws of war, the Obama administration should announce that the United States accepts specific provisions of the Conventions and engage other countries to develop new rules where the Geneva Conventions do not apply.
The 1949 Geneva Conventions consist of four separate treaties originally signed by 59 countries in Geneva, Switzerland. In light of the horrific experiences of World War II, the first three agreements revised previous treaties dating from 1864, 1906, and 1929 that provided humanitarian protections for sick or wounded soldiers on land, sailors at sea, and prisoners of war. The fourth agreement, added in 1949, establishes protections for civilians in conflict zones. The best known of the agreements is the Third Geneva Convention, which provides detailed articles of protection for those who qualify as Prisoners of War (POWs).