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Geneva Convention

The Geneva Conventions are a series of treaties on the treatment of civilians, prisoners of war and soldiers who are otherwise rendered incapable of fighting. The first convention was initiated by the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded (which became the International Committee for the Red Cross and Red Crescent). This convention produced a treaty designed to protect wounded and sick soldiers during wartime. The Swiss government agreed to hold the conventions in Geneva, and a few years later, a similar agreement to protect shipwrecked soldiers was produced. In 1949, after World War II, two new conventions were added to the original two, and all four were ratified by a number of countries. The 1949 versions of the conventions, along with two additional protocols, are in force today.

Convention I: This convention protects wounded and infirm soldiers and medical personnel against attack, execution without judgment, torture and assault upon personal dignity (Article 3). It also grants them the right to proper medical treatment and care.

Convention II: This agreement extended the protections mentioned in the first convention to shipwrecked soldiers and other naval forces, including special protections afforded to hospital ships.

Convention III: One of the treaties created during the 1949 convention, this defined a prisoner of war and accorded prisoners of war proper and humane treatment as specified by the first convention. Specifically, it required POWs to give only their name, rank and serial number to a captor. Nations party to the convention may not use torture to extract information from POWs.

Convention IV: Under this convention, civilians are afforded the protections from inhumane treatment and attack afforded in the first convention to sick and wounded soldiers. Furthermore, additional regulations regarding the treatment of civilians were introduced. Specifically, it prohibits attacks on civilian hospitals, medical transports, etc. It also specifies the right of internees and those who commit acts of sabotage. Finally, it discusses how occupiers are to treat an occupied populace.

Protocol I: In this additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, the signing nations agreed to further restrictions on the treatment of "protected persons" according to the original conventions. Furthermore, clarification of the terms used in the conventions was introduced. Finally, new rules regarding the treatment of the deceased, cultural artifacts and dangerous targets (such as dams and nuclear installations) were produced.

Protocol II: In this protocol, the fundamentals of "humane treatment" were further clarified. Additionally, the rights of interned persons were specifically enumerated, providing protections for those charged with crimes during wartime. It also identified new protections and rights of civilian populations.

The U.S. has ratified the four conventions but has not ratified the two protocols.

Disputes arising under the conventions or protocols additional to them are settled by courts of the member nations (Article 49 of Convention I) or by international tribunals.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent has a special role given by the Geneva Conventions, whereby it handles, and is granted access to, the wounded, sick and POWs.

Last update: Oct. 1, 2008

The content on this page was developed in partnership with the Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.

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