Geneva Convention

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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries bilateral treaties between belligerents had sometimes provided for the reciprocal treatment of the sick and the wounded. But nationalist aggressiveness and the use of popular armies since the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) tended to do away with such restraint. In the Crimean War (1854–1856), for instance, nearly 60 percent of the wounded died as a result of lack of treatment. The popular success of Jean-Henri Dunant's Un souvenir de Solférino (1862; A memoir of Solférino) reflected something of the humanitarian mood of the Victorian mid-century. The book vividly recounts Dunant's experience at the battlefield of Solférino, during the Franco-Austrian campaign of 1859, where nearly forty thousand wounded and dying soldiers had been left unattended in conditions of untold horror. Something needed to be done. Together with the Swiss lawyer and philanthropist Gustave Moynier (1826–1910), Dunant organized an international meeting in Geneva in the fall of 1863—at which the participants, including representatives of nearly all European states, agreed unofficially to set up national associations—and sent observers to monitor the battles in the Schleswig-Holstein War waged in 1864 by Prussia and Austria against Denmark.

At the initiative of the Swiss government, directed to twenty-five states, a diplomatic conference opened on 8 August 1864 at the town hall in Geneva. Representatives of sixteen states attended. On 22 August the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field—the Geneva Convention—was adopted. In ten articles the Convention provided for the neutrality of the medical services, including the wounded, the ambulances, the hospitals, and the medical personnel, as well as civilians treating the wounded. Authorized personnel were to be recognized by an arm band with a red cross on a white surface—the reverse of the colors of the Swiss flag.

Although the Geneva Convention was soon ratified by most European states, including the Great Powers (the United States joined in 1882), its rules were ignored or often misused in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Suggestions for the strengthening of the Geneva rules and extending their scope to include maritime warfare were debated in conferences in Geneva and Brussels in 1868 and 1874. Following the 1863 example of the Union armies in the American Civil War, most European countries adopted military manuals that regulated behavior in warfare. The Institut de Droit International, an unofficial but influential association, codified many of the existing rules in an 1880 declaration.

It was only at the peace conference held at The Hague in 1899 that further significant progress was reached. As disarmament talks did not progress, the delegations turned their attention to the further development of the humanitarian laws of war. In addition to agreeing on the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Conference agreed on two important instruments: Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, and Convention (X) on the Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention. The former dealt with the conditions of occupation of enemy territory and the treatment of prisoners of war. The latter extended the Geneva provisions to the protection of hospital ships and the treatment of the wounded, the sick, and the shipwrecked who fell in the hands of the adversary. In addition, three declarations were adopted on the prohibition of exploding (dumdum) bullets, the launching of projectiles from balloons, and projectiles diffusing chemical weapons. The Geneva Convention itself was amended in 1906 by provisions regarding national Red Cross organizations, exchange of information concerning protected persons, and the punishment of nations that violated the provisions.

A Second Peace Conference was held at The Hague in 1907. Altogether it adopted thirteen instruments, most of which were of lesser significance than those of 1899. Some of them (for example, on the establishment of an International Prize Court) were never implemented. Others (such as those regarding the position of neutrals) were unrealistic and were never followed in practice. The main contribution of the 1907 conference was to amend aspects of the 1899 conventions, but it did not bring great changes. On the basis of the experiences of World War I, two more conventions were adopted in 1929 on the treatment of the wounded and the sick and on prisoners of war. These were updated and considerably extended by the four 1949 Geneva Conventions that integrated provisions on the status and role of the Red Cross. In 1977 these were further extended by two protocols, one of which (Protocol II) applied to internal armed conflicts.

The actual effects of the 1864 Red Cross Convention and subsequent developments have been unclear. The ratio between civilian and military casualties was one to three in World War I, in World War II one civilian was killed or injured for every military casualty, and in the civil wars of the late twentieth century there were three civilian casualties for every military death or injury. Already in his 1795 essay Zum ewigen Frieden (Toward perpetual peace), Immanuel Kant indicted representatives of the old natural law, the humanist lawyers Hugo Grotius, Emmerich von Vattel, and Samuel von Pufendorf as "miserable comforters" who had failed to understand that only entry into a pacific federation would provide exit from the "state of barbarism," as he characterized the diplomatic-military system of his time. Yet, the Geneva Convention and the further agreements have undoubtedly ameliorated the condition of many victims of armed conflict. Moreover, the activities of the Red Cross have been invaluable. The question remains, however, whether humanitarian law may also have contributed to the astonishing toleration of the endemic wars of the twentieth century.

See alsoInternational Law.


Best, Geoffrey. Humanity in Warfare: The Modern History of the International Law of Armed Conflicts. London, 1980.

Moorehead, Caroline. Dunant's Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross. London, 1998.

Nussbaum, Arthur. A Concise History of the Law of Nations. New York, 1954. See pp. 224–230.

Martti Koskenniemi

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