What is the Geneva Convention?

History Q & A

Mr. Farrell is a student at the University of Washington and an intern at History News Network.

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Note: This article was first published in 2002.

The Geneva Convention often written and spoken of in contemporary news is actually the fourth Geneva Convention ratified in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II. The original Convention grew out concern for wounded soldiers in the late 19th century and has come to encompass the protection of prisoners of war, civilians and civilian non-combatants including reporters, photographers, and religious and medical personnel.

The history of the Conventions is closely linked to the emergency aid organization the Red Cross, one of whose founders, Henri Dunant, helped form the original Convention in 1864 after witnessing the carnage of the Battle of Solferino (1859) during the War of the Italian Unification, one of the bloodiest battles of the century. The 1864 Convention calls for the protection of all medical facilities, their personnel and any civilians aiding the wounded. It also gives the Red Cross international recognition as a neutral medical group.

The 1864 Convention was signed by twelve nations. The United States signed the treaty in 1882 by President Chester Arthur and was ratified by Congress; the U.S. was the thirty-second nation to sign the agreement.

The second Convention extended protection to wounded combatants at sea and shipwreck victims. A third Convention was convened to deal with the protection of prisoners of war in 1929. The fourth Geneva Convention, signed in 1949, reaffirmed the principles of the first three agreements and included in addition a section covering the protection of civilians during wartime.

The 1949 Convention is a lengthy document with over a hundred articles. The Convention outlaws the taking of hostages, the mutilation and degradation of POW's, torture, executions, and discrimination based on race, sex, religion, nationality or political affiliations.

Additional protocols have been issued including two in 1977 extending the 1949 articles to cover guerrilla combatants and to soldiers in wars of"self-determination." The United States signed the 1977 Protocols, but Congress refused to ratify them.

Recent interest in the Geneva Convention has been sparked by the treatment of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners of war held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Initially, President Bush determined that the Geneva Convention did not apply to the prisoners there. In early February in response to world pressure, he reversed administration policy, determining that the Convention does cover the Taliban prisoners since Afghanistan is a signatory to the agreement. He specifically exempted from coverage the prisoners identified as members of Al Qaeda. None of the people held at Guantanamo are considered prisoners of war, however. Instead, they have been designated"unlawful combatants." The administration contends that they did not conduct themselves in accordance with the commonly accepted rules of war.



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Arnold Shcherban - 9/29/2006

The essense of the fuss around Geneva
Coventions, which the US is the signatory of, is that the US tries to override them by its own national laws, that by itself is a violation of the core principle of any internationally accepted law.

Vernon Clayson - 7/16/2006

Robert, if what you say is true, you might be the only one-eyed individual ever drafted into the military and you became a sharpshooter, amazing! Where do we find such men? I feel a little foolish commenting on a 2003 comment from an article from 2002, how must you have felt when you found how badly you had been used? It was a tragedy that you were not captured by someone who could have used you for an example of how desperate the US was for men, having to take one-eyed draftees. A John Kerry moment if there ever was one.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/13/2004

"The US completely destroyed the infrastructure of Afghanistan."

I don't think this needs extended comment -- it rather speaks for itself.

Steven Alan Dickerson - 5/13/2004

It seems that Bush is a student of Adolf Hitler. As you recall, the Geneva Convention didn't apply for his army in the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union was not a signatory.

Finally, Bush says that the al Quaida members are not covered by the Geneva Convention because they don't conduct themselves according to accepted rules of warfare. In that case he must be saying that US soldiers aren't covered either. The US completely destroyed the infrastructure of Afghanistan causing the war to be a war against the people of Afghanistan more than any war against al Quaida.

Furthermore, according to Bush's argument, if the charges made in the documentary "Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death" are true, then that is another reason that US soldiers should not be covered under the Geneva Convention. US Special Forces have been implicated in the murder of at least 2500 Taliban soldiers who surrendered in November 2001.

mark safranski - 5/12/2004

"that the commander-in-chief was responsible as in the case of Japanese General T. Yamashita who was executed for it.. Thus US President George W. Bush as Commander-in-Chief must be tried for all atrocities committed by his trops in Iraq."

Yamashita was not the commander-in-chief, he was a theater commander whose subordinate commanders, to his misfortune, were beyond his control due to political ties to the imperial family ( I may be be misremembering my generals but I believe one of them was actually Prince Kanin, a senior prince). The architect of the bataan death march, Colonel Tsuji, escaped punuishment and went on to serve in the postwar Diet. Emperor Hirohito was not tried for either the war crimes he initiated or those simply carried out in his name.

Sitting heads of state and government are immune to prosecution while in office. Even after leaving office the responsibility needs to be relatively direct in order to justify a trial - Milosevic is not being prosecuted for being Serbia's leader *when* crimes were committed but for *directly orchestrating* those crimes as a matter of state policy. If Bush directly approved a policy of torture he has liability or if he was derelict in his command responsibilities.

Generally, presidents and prime ministers are not liable for what falls in the domain of brigadiers, colonels and majors as unit commanders.

Kenneth T. Tellis - 5/12/2004

During World War II both the Germans and the Japanese were accused of and found gulity of violating the Geneva Conventions with regards to both military and civilan prisoners-of-war. But of course as usual everyone forgot to mention the orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Normandy landings, "take no prisoners! This meant only one thing. That all German army personnel who surrendered were immediately shot. That is exactly what the Geneva Convention of 1864 was all about. To protect both military and civilians from murder, and that is what the Supreme Allied Commander had ordered in Normandy. Was Eisenhower therefore ant different to the Germans and Japanese War Criminals? Not all. He was actually in the same category as they were. Under those cirumstances many of the Germans who were tried at Nuremberg, Germany and Japanese tried at Tokyo, Japan, should not have been tried at all.

As for the recent exposure of the illtreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq by US and British military personnel, they are in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. Since the precedent regarding who should be tried for the actions of their military personnel was already set in Nuremberg and Tokyo, that the commander-in-chief was responsible as in the case of Japanese General T. Yamashita who was executed for it.. Thus US President George W. Bush as Commander-in-Chief must be tried for all atrocities committed by his trops in Iraq. Nothing could be more clear than that. Equal justice under the law should be the norm. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his is without question an accomplice in the War Crimes committed by Army personnel in Iraq.

George W. Bush' praise for Rumsfeld doing a good job in Iraq, actually means that the president agrees with the atrocities committed by US forces, as acceptable.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/11/2004

Fascinating. Could you tell me what part of the Geneva Conventions was relevant to your sightlessness in one eye?

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/11/2004

Monbiot makes, apparently, two mistakes on matters of law -- unsurprising, inasmuch as he is not a lawyer, but a controversialist who writes on anything and everything, regardless of his lack of knowledge of the subject area.

Mistake 1:

"The US government claims that these men are not subject to the Geneva conventions, as they are not "prisoners of war", but "unlawful combatants". The same claim could be made, with rather more justice, by the Iraqis holding the US soldiers who illegally invaded their country."

Monbiot is ignorant of the distinction between jus in bello (the subject area of the Geneva Conventions), and jus ad bellum, which pertains to lawfulness of the war itself. There is certainly a defensible argument that the US acted wrongly in the context of jus ad bellum. Even so, its combatants are "legal combatants" for the purposes of the Geneva Conventions -- jus in bello is not dependent on jus ad bellum.

Mistake 2:

"Even if there is doubt about how such people should be classified, article 5 insists that they "shall enjoy the protection of the present convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal". But when, earlier this month, lawyers representing 16 of them demanded a court hearing, the US court of appeals ruled that as Guantanamo Bay is not sovereign US territory, the men have no constitutional rights."

The rights enjoyed by the prisoners are not dependent on constitutional rights, nor on the views of federal courts. Their status as prisoners of war are to be determined by a competent tribunal, which can be as little as a hearing before a military judge.

Jeff Moses - 5/11/2004

Thanks very much for a clear and concise description of the Geneva Convention...well done and timely as well.

Robert - 12/17/2003

In mid 1952 I was drafted into the US Army. I contested my induction on the basis that I had no sight in my right eye and I could not use the rifle, therefore, exempt. In support of my contention I referred to the Geneva Convention. The Army Court ruled the induction was proper because the US was NOT a signatory of the Geneva Convention. I ended up serving two years, used the rifle left-handed, and I got a medal as a sharpshooter.
Why did they say the US was not a signatory? I doubt it if they lied; there was no reason.
Please post your response here, I'll get to it. The e-mail address is incorrect.

Robert - 12/17/2003

Yes, Iraq is a sigatory, but you'll be surprised to find out that the US was NOT a signatory as at 1952. There are many Geneva Conventions, and the US, I suppose, participated in one AFTER 1952. Go to Geneva Convention in the Internet and you'll find tons of info ... and lots of surprises.
You misspelled the word Convention.

Lynn Myles - 6/18/2003

I am a 4th year student who is studying the Iraq war for my dissertation. Could you please forward relevant information or sources for this topic.

Bill Heuisler - 4/6/2003

Ms. Warwick,
US signed. Iraq did not sign on 19 June 1948, but has signed the BTWC agreement. Look the BTWC Agreement up on google and become confused like everyone else.
Bill Heuisler

Elizabeth Warwick - 4/1/2003

I have a question. Has Iraq signed on to the Geneva Convention? Where can I find a list of signatories? Thanx

Gus Moner - 3/29/2003

This is indeed a relevant, factual article of information. I'd offer the following interpretation of events related to the convention’s application by the USA written by Mr. George Mombiot.


Nathan - 3/25/2003

This was a very interesting article.

Lisa Harp South - 3/25/2003

I appreciate this clear and concise information, and this is exactly what I need to share with my US history students, most of whom are military or dependents of military. It quickly answers most of their questions.

Suetonius - 3/25/2003

This is exactly what HNN should be doing--clear, factually based analysis of the current issues so that we all know what on earth we're talking about when we speak of 'The Geneva Convention.'

Well done Mr. Farrell.