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Explainer: The Geneva Conventions at 60

  • Story Highlights
  • First Geneva Convention of 1864 set rules for protection of sick, injured combatants
  • Conventions updated and expanded to cover civilians in 1949 after WWII
  • Conventions codify International Committee of the Red Cross' humanitarian mandate
By Nick Wade
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London, England (CNN) -- There have been efforts to regulate the treatment of civilians and combatants in war since the beginning of recorded history.

Lebanon, 2007. A man returns to his ruined home in Aita Esh-Shaab village, close to the Israeli border

Lebanon, 2007. A man returns to his ruined home in Aita Esh-Shaab village, close to the Israeli border

The Chinese warrior Sun Tzu suggested specific restrictions on military conduct in the sixth century BC, whilst the Dutch theorist Hugo Grotius appealed for the protection of civilians when he wrote "On the Law of War and Peace" in 1625.

Even as weapons and tactics evolved, agreements on the rules of war continued to be defined by custom or negotiated between rival commanders before their forces clashed.

These were circumstantial arrangements and were not applicable beyond specific battles.

The first international treaties on conduct in warfare occurred after a Swiss citizen, Henry Dunant, witnessed the battle of Solferino in 1859.

Appalled by the manner in which thousands of wounded from both sides were abandoned, Dunant started a campaign to create an international body responsible for the care of soldiers incapacitated by war which culminated in the foundation of the Red Cross.

Dunant additionally convened a conference in which 12 European powers signed the first Geneva Convention of 1864, agreeing standards for the protection of sick and injured combatants.

The agreement of August 1949 consists of four conventions. They seek to protect three particular groups: combatants, civilians, and captives.

The First and Second conventions are similar in content, covering land and sea combatants respectively.

They embody the founding principles of the Geneva Convention and Red Cross; namely that once a combatant is no longer able to fight they cease to be hostile and become a vulnerable person in need of care.

Both conventions outline the protection of religious personnel and medical units on the battlefield.

The Third convention describes the treatment of combatants who are captured by the enemy.

The conditions and places of captivity are precisely defined, particularly with regard to the labor of prisoners of war, their financial resources, the relief they receive, and the judicial proceedings initiated against them. The conventions establish the principle that prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.

The events of World War II showed the disastrous consequences of the absence of a convention for the protection of civilians in wartime, and the Fourth Convention emerged from that experience.

It broke new ground in outlining the responsibilities of belligerent powers in their treatment of civilians within enemy and occupied territory.

The conventions also formalized the neutral role of the International Committee of the Red Cross with regard to visiting prisoners, organizing relief efforts and conducting other humanitarian work.

The experience of weapons development and the proliferation of civil wars and internal conflicts meant that the Conventions were reinforced by two protocols in 1977.

Protocol I strengthened the protections applicable to the victims of international wars, whilst Protocol II extends these protections to non-international conflicts. Such conflicts include civil wars, and wars in which numerous state or non-state actors are involved.

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