Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Berga: Soldiers of Another War
Stories of Berga What Would You Do? Timeline & Maps Berga and Beyond War Crimes
Intro POWs and the Laws of War WWII and Its Legacy
WWII and Its Legacy
Intro Customary Laws Military Tribunals Recent Developments

WWII Atrocities Background text: Prosecution
page 1 page 2 page 3
Witness at trial

A witness at a war-crimes trial after World War II.
Development of the Geneva Conventions of 1949

The second major development in international law stemming from the experiences of World War II was a complete revision of the Geneva and Hague Conventions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The resulting convention, the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, encompasses four conventions which cover: I) the Wounded and Sick; II) the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea; III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War; and IV) Relative to the Protection of the Civilian Persons in Time of War. The most important development of the 1949 Geneva Conventions was the extended reach of the laws of war. For the most part, prior conventions regulated only conduct on the battlefield. The 1949 Geneva Conventions are broader in scope and regulate conduct in the entire military "theater of operations."

This universality of jurisdiction has not been readily accepted by many nations due to long-standing norms of sovereignty.

Man with headphones

A former Nazi official listens to testimony at his trial.

These broad regulations are most prominent in the Fourth Geneva Convention, which is intended to establish specific protections for the civilian population -- non-combatants -- among whom war is often waged. For example, the Fourth Convention explicitly prohibits the targeting of sites absent a connection to a military position or military use. The Fourth Convention established the now common concept of "grave breaches." The Convention defines grave breaches as:
"[W]ilful killing, torture or inhumane treatment, including biological experiments, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power, or wilfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in the present Convention, taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly."
Violation of these grave breaches is a war crime punishable under the Convention.

In addition to articulating these crimes against protected persons, the Convention provided for universal jurisdiction over any individuals who either commit or order someone else to commit grave breaches against protected persons. Universal jurisdiction obligates all parties to the Convention to either extradite or try all persons alleged to have committed or ordered grave breaches, regardless of their nationality. This universality of jurisdiction has not, however, been readily accepted by many nations due to long-standing norms of sovereignty -- although in recent years acceptance of universal jurisdiction by domestic legal systems has grown. Despite the lingering doubts regarding universal jurisdiction, the nearly universal accession to these Conventions has led many international lawyers, legal scholars, and diplomats to assert that the 1949 Conventions have achieved the status of customary international law.

© 2003 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

E-mail this page Print this page About the Film For Teachers Resources Pledge Sitemap