Geneva Conventions

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GENEVA CONVENTIONS, a series of international agreements drafted for the amelioration (improvement)of the treatment of the sick and wounded, in particular—but all prisoners—in land and sea warfare. The first Geneva Convention (1864)covered field armies only. Subsequent conventions extended that coverage to include the sick and wounded at sea, the treatment of prisoners of war, and the protection of noncombatants during time of war. The principles first articulated in the Geneva Conventions have become the cornerstones of international laws regulating conduct in wartime.

The first agreement resulted from the outcry that followed the publication in 1862 of Un Souvenir de Solferino, by Jean Henri Dunant, a cofounder of the Red Cross. His book—describing the suffering of wounded French, Italian, and Austrian soldiers in northern Italy in 1859 because of inadequate medical facilities—resulted in the convocation of an unofficial congress at Geneva in 1863 and, in the following year, of the formal sessions whose convention was ratified by the United States, most other American countries, and twelve European nations. An 1868 convention, while not ratified, expanded the earlier agreement to include naval warfare. The articles of the two conventions were observed during the Franco-Prussian (1870–1871)and Spanish-American (1898)wars.

Another conference was held in 1906 at Geneva, at which the conventions were revised; these were adopted by the Hague Peace Conference of 1907. The brutality of World War I demonstrated the need for clearer international guidelines in regard to what constituted lawful and unlawful conduct in wartime. In 1929, the conventions—signed by forty-seven nations—were widened to include provisions to improve the lot of prisoners of war. On the eastern front of the European theater, as well as in the Pacific, both the Axis and Allied powers routinely violated the protocols of the Geneva Conventions. Nazi Germany, in particular, murdered huge numbers of Soviet prisoners of war. The war crimes committed by the Nazis, coupled with their perpetration of the Holocaust, constituted the major charges levied the German government leaders during the 1946 Nuremberg Tribunal. The latest Geneva Convention—in 1949—was ratified by sixty-one countries, including the United States. Its four articles covered the amelioration of conditions of the wounded and sick in the armed forces, including those in the field and those shipwrecked at sea (articles I and II); the treatment of prisoners of war (III); and, in response to Nazi atrocities in World War II, the treatment and legal status of noncombatants in wartime (IV). The subjects of the last two articles, issues in World War II, were raised also during the Vietnam War. Since the latter was partially a guerrilla war, the distinction between armed combatants in civilian dress and noncombatants was blurred, and the applicability of the conventions to the Vietnam conflict was questioned. The United States and South Vietnam both publicly adhered to the convention, unlike North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front, which were also unwilling to allow the International Red Cross to inspect their prisoner-of-war camps.


Ellis, L. Ethan. Frank B. Kellogg and American Foreign Relations, 1925–1929. New Brunswick, N. J. : Rutgers University Press, 1929; 1961.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Hutchinson, 1989.

Richard A.Hunt/a. g.

See alsoHague Peace Conferences ; Prisoners of War ; Spanish-American War ; War Crimes Trials .

Geneva Conventions

views updated May 14 2018

Geneva Conventions (1864).The Geneva Convention of 22 August 1864 was the world's first multilateral humanitarian treaty. Sixteen nations were present, responding to public concern about the sufferings of sick and wounded soldiers, well publicized by the labors of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, Clara Barton and the U.S. Sanitary Commission in the American Civil War, and the dramatic book The Memory of Solferino (1862) by Henry Dunant, a Swiss, about the casualties at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Dunant and four other Genevan philanthropists had already launched, in October 1863, what would become the international Red Cross movement. Now the twelve initial signatories bound their armies to respect and protect the lives and workplaces of each other's ambulance and medical personnel; to incorporate volunteer auxiliaries into their medical corps; and to signify their virtual neutrality by a protective emblem, “a red cross on a white ground.” The United States acceded to the convention in 1882.

Its consequences were mixed. The popularity of national Red Cross societies actually facilitated social mobilization for war purposes. On the other hand, the convention set a valuable humanitarian precedent, of which the most obvious sequels were its successively extended versions of 1906, 1929, 1949, and 1977.
[See also Laws of War; Red Cross, American.]


Dietrich Schindler and Jiri Toman, eds., The Laws of Armed Conflicts: A Collection of Conventions, Resolutions and Other’ Documents, 1973; 2nd ed. 1981.
John F. Hutchinson , Champions of Charity: The Red Cross and the Great Powers, 1995.

Geoffrey Best

Geneva Conventions

views updated May 23 2018

Geneva Conventions Series of agreements, beginning in 1864, on the treatment of wounded soldiers and prisoners during war, and on the neutrality of the medical services.

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