People & Events: Japan, POWs and the Geneva Conventions
The Geneva Conventions are four separate treaties negotiated and re-negotiated by international committees between 1864 and 1977 to govern human rights during wartime.
Safeguard for Doctors and Nurses
Henri Dunant, founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, was the first to propose international rules for the treatment of doctors and victims during wartime. After witnessing the battle for Solferino in Italy in 1859, Dunant committed himself to promote the "adoption by all civilized nations of an international and sacred principle which would be assured and placed on record by a convention to be concluded between governments. This would serve as a safeguard for all official and unofficial persons engaged in nursing war victims."
White Flag and Red Cross
In 1864, representatives of thirteen nations met in Geneva to discuss the plight of people wounded in wartime. On August 22, 1864, they signed the first Geneva Convention, agreeing that those wounded in war, as well as the people and facilities catering to the wounded, would merit non-belligerent status. Further, they agreed that prisoners should be returned to their native countries. The white flag and red cross would serve both hospitals and ambulances as symbols of neutrality.
Over the course of the next century, more qualifications and rules were added to the conventions. Standards for the "humane treatment" of POWs were established in 1907 at an International Conference at The Hague, Netherlands. In 1929 the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was signed by 47 governments. Japan signed the 1929 convention but failed to ratify it. However, in 1942, Japan indicated it would follow the Geneva rules and would observe the Hague Convention of 1907 outlining the laws and customs of war.
That Japanese forces did not strictly follow the Geneva Conventions is hardly a matter of debate. According to Dr. William Skelton III, who produced a document entitled American Ex Prisoners of War for the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs, more POWs died at the hands of the Japanese in the Pacific theater and specifically in the Philippines than in any other conflict to date. In Germany in WWII, POWs died at a rate 1.2%. In the Pacific theater the rate was 37%. In the Philippines, POWs died at a rate of 40%. In total 11,107 American soldiers captured in the Philippines died. Some died in the Philippines. Others were transported and died in places like Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, or the Japanese home islands. Still others were killed in the "Hell Ships" en route to Japan, ships that were bombed by American planes or torpedoed by American ships whose crewmen did not realize their countrymen were in the transport holds.
Today's debate revolves around how to rectify damages and compensate survivors. In 1951 a U.S.-Japanese treaty sought to minimize war reparations. However, in recent years, individuals and advocacy groups have been suing Japanese corporations as well as the government of Japan, citing violations of both the Hague and Geneva Conventions.
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