What Is the Geneva Convention?

Donald Rumsfeld says the Iraqis violated the Geneva Convention by broadcasting interrogations with captured American soldiers. The document, he points out, explicitly forbids the humiliation of prisoners of war. What exactly is the Geneva Convention?

A stickler for legal accuracy would first point out that it should be “Geneva Conventions,” plural. The treaty that Rumsfeld cites is formally known as the third convention, which deals with the treatments of POWs. The first convention covers the handling of sick and wounded soldiers; the second, injured sailors and shipwreck victims; and the fourth, civilians during wartime.

Though the current conventions are not quite 54 years old, Geneva-based efforts for more compassionate warfare date back to the mid-19th century. In 1859, a Swiss businessman named Henri Dunant traveled to northern Italy, hoping to gain an audience with French emperor Napoleon III. According to Caroline Moorehead’s 1999 book Dunant’s Dream, he stumbled upon the Battle of Solferino, a key conflict in Piedmont’s war for Italian independence against Austria. Dunant was taken aback by the suffering of the wounded, often left to die in agony amid vermin-infested muck and decaying bodies; the French army, which was fighting alongside the Piedmontese, had only one doctor per 1,000 soldiers.

Dunant rallied local peasants to carry the wounded to nearby churches and to attend to their injuries as best as possible. (However, given the dearth of medicines or physicians, the care usually amounted to little more than a belt of wine and a prayer.) Appalled by the carnage, and influenced by the Florence Nightingale’s legendary nursing work in the Crimea, Dunant wrote A Memory of Solferino in 1862. The pamphlet introduced the notion of an independent organization that would tend to wartime casualties—the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was officially created a year later.

Yet Dunant feared that, without official international recognition, ICRC medics might be harmed as they performed their duties. So, in 1864, he convinced the Swiss government to hold a 16-nation conference, which produced the 10-article Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. The treaty, often regarded as the first example of international humanitarian law, was instantly ratified by 12 of the attendees; the United States held out until 1882.

The initial convention was tweaked slightly in 1906 and then expanded in 1929 to cover the treatment of POWs. The atrocities of World War II, however, led to the wholesale overhaul of the documents in 1949, when the current four conventions were adopted. There were two additional protocols added in 1977 that extend protections to victims of “nontraditional” conflicts: wars of self-determination and civil wars.

Those who violate the stipulations of the Geneva Conventions, such as the stipulation in Article 13 of the third convention that POWs must be protected against “insults and public curiosity,” risk being tried as war criminals at the International Criminal Court. The ICRC, hoping to give the conventions some teeth, was a prime proponent of the court’s creation.

For a full history of the “laws of war,” click here.

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Explainer thanks the Avalon Project at YaleLawSchool.