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History of the Geneva Conventions
Red Cross Nurses, photo from the archives of the National Museum of Health & Medicine
May 29, 2009

In the film, TORTURING DEMOCRACY, Martin Lederman, a legal adviser in the Department of Justice from 1994 to 2002, says, "The prohibition in the Geneva Conventions against cruel treatment turns out to have been probably the most important of the legal restrictions that the Bush administration had to deal with."

According to sources in the film, the administration would have been especially concerned with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which bans "violence to life and person," including "cruel treatment and torture [...] and outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."

What are the Geneva Conventions and to whom do they apply? Today they refer to those conventions ratified in the wake of WWII in 1949 and some provisions added in later years. Nearly all 200 countries of the world are "signatory" nations, in that they have ratified these conventions. Learn more about the Conventions and their history below.

Red Cross image


Efforts to regulate the conduct of war appear throughout human history — but those agreements only bound the participants in individual conflicts. The first effort at international standards came through the efforts of Swiss businessman Henri Dunant, the founder of the International Red Cross. Dunant was horrified by witnessing the aftermath of the Battle of Soliferno in Northern Italy.

Dunant subsequently visited Emperor Napoleon III in France and persuaded him to issue the following orders to his soldiers: "Doctors and surgeons attached to the Austrian armies and captured while attending to the wounded shall be unconditionally released..."

Dunant carried on his crusade, founding in 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross to combat human suffering. In 1864 Dunant invited 13 nations to take part in a conference on the humane conduct of war. The result was the first Geneva Convention, which provided for the neutrality of ambulance and military hospitals, the non-belligerent status of persons who aid the wounded, and sick soldiers of any nationality, the return of prisoners to their country if they are incapable of serving, and the adoption of a white flag with a red cross as symbol of neutrality.


Red Cross image By the time of World War I, the Red Cross was a potent symbol of both humanitarian relief and, as in the poster at left, of calls to wartime patriotism as well.

The first Geneva Convention had been supplemented by treaties from 1899 concerning asphyxiating gases and expanding bullets. The Second Geneva Convention, which extended the principals of the first to war at sea, was signed in 1906.

But the real change in thinking around warfare was related to the treatment of prisoners of war and to defining who qualified for such protection. As early as 1899 a convention in The Hague drafted 18 articles to the care of POWs — these articles were included in the international agreement The Hague Convention of 1907.

As the scope of the First World War became clear, the International Red Cross lobbied combatants to agree to standard humanitarian rules in relation to prisoner treatment. It advocated the creation of a central office and special prisoner-of-war commissions. However, it was not until after the end of the war that new rules were codified in new Geneva Convections. In 1929, two more Geneva Conventions dealt with the treatment of the wounded and prisoners of war.


International Committee of the Red Cross advertisement, 1972 The horrors of World War II added great impetus to the press of a comprehensive humanitarian standard governing warfare. Although the provisions of the 1929 conventions were in effect, and Germany was a signatory to that convention, the Red Cross and other agencies could not forestall the large-scale atrocities taking place on the battlefields, and in prisoner of war camps in Europe and the Far East.

The result was the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which updated the earlier conventions and adds a fourth convention relative to the treatment of civilians in the time of war. In 1977 two additional protocols were added relating to "Hostile Use of Environmental Techniques" and extending the protections of all conventions to civil wars. Read the Conventions:

  • Convention I: For the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field
  • Convention II: For the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea
  • Convention III: Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War
  • Convention IV: Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War
  • Protocol I: Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, extends protection to victims of wars against racist regimes, wars of self determination, and against alien oppression.
  • Protocol II: Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts.

Published May 29, 2009.

Also This Week:

BILL MOYERS JOURNAL presents TORTURING DEMOCRACY, a film from award-winning producer Sherry Jones which examines America's detention and interrogation practices in the "war on terror."

>Watch the full documentary online.

BILL MOYERS JOURNAL resources and interviews about torture and the rule of law.

>>Launch video player for complete coverage of torture on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

Explore the history of the Geneva Conventions.

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