Have you ever heard someone mention that a country has “violated the rules of war”? Maybe this has led you to wonder why or how war has rules to begin with? It’s a valid question, considering many associate war with not much more than chaos and death. In fairness, the titular Geneva Convention wasn’t this huge catchall that encompassed every rule of war. But most people invoke it when they talk about “rules of war,” so they get conflated now and then. Of course, you might be wondering what the Geneva Convention is to begin with, but there’s actually more than one. So we’ll edit the question; what are the Geneva Conventions?
What are the Geneva Conventions?
We should first discuss what exactly the Geneva Conventions protect (if anything).
In essence, the Geneva Conventions cover prisoners of war, the wounded, and civilians in a warzone. Basically, protocols have been established that are meant to protect us, the ones without the guns. Do note that “prisoners of war” also includes captured military personnel, so the coverage is more for all non-combatants.
What they don’t cover are the weapons you can use when at war. That’s actually a part of the Hague Conventions.
Also, as we mentioned earlier, there’s more than one Geneva Convention. There were four conventions to be exact. The first one covered wounded soldiers, the second covered those wounded at sea, the third covered prisoners of war, and the fourth covered civilians. We’re using the past tense here not because the protections are gone, by the way. We just mean that the conventions were a thing that actually happened.
The First Geneva Convention
So why did the first Geneva Convention take place to begin with? Well, you probably guessed that the first convention was held because war sucks and we needed to like…limit the raw depravity of humans during wartime.
While the Geneva Convention would be revisited in the wake of WWII, the first convention was actually held back in 1864. And we can thank one Jean-Henri Dunant for it. A few years prior, he had traveled to northern Italy in an effort to do business with Napoleon III. Unfortunately for Dunant, however, he arrived shortly after the Battle of Solferino. With over 25,000 casualties and the wounded left to suffer out on the battlefield, you can imagine how terrible things looked.
After seeing the aftermath of such a conflict, Dunant published what he saw in writing, titled In Memory of Solferino. Not only did he detail what it was he saw, he made a call to action–that an international force would need to be formed. A force meant to train individuals to treat the wounded. A force meant to be a vanguard of humanitarian aid.
That force would become the Red Cross.
After the First Convention
In 1906, the first Geneva Convention would be updated by the Swiss, granting protections to the battle-wounded and prisoners of war, as well as allowing for organized transport of those who were wounded. Ergo, getting dying people off the battlefield.
Post WWI, more addendums were made to add even more protections for prisoners of war (this was around 1929). Basically the 1929 addendums dictated that POWs had to be treated humanely. Which…uh yeah…a lot of countries are still working on.
Of course, despite Germany being a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, WWII and the Holocaust still happened. So in 1949, the Geneva Conventions were edited again to also include civilians. Apparently that had to be said.
In 1977, Protocols I and II were slapped onto the Geneva Conventions. Civilians, workers, and journalists received additional protections under Protocol I. That same Protocol also instituted a ban on weapons that caused unnecessary suffering, as well as excessive damage to the environment. Protocol II basically established that an order dictating “no survivors” was a no-no.
Breaching the Treaties
You may be wondering what happens when the Geneva Conventions are violated? Kind of like how the UN is generally considered to be way more bark than bite–it’s mostly bark.
The Geneva Conventions have established “Protecting Powers” among the signatories. They’re kind of a 3rd party mediator that advocates for civilians, the wounded, and prisoners of war.
Other signatories are obligated under the Geneva Conventions to go after anyone who violates them, but that’s an obligation held by the UN. There isn’t a lot of surrounding enforcement right now. You can get “condemned”, but that doesn’t really mean a whole lot–like when this happened. Even the President of the United States has previously described the Geneva Conventions as a “problem”. Not as in they’re not effective, so we’re clear. He meant that they place too many restrictions.
So while the Geneva Conventions were created to protect us, there remains some uncertainty to just how effective they actually are.
Make sure you know who signed the first Geneva Convention here.