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International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols

The 1949 Geneva Conventions set out the principle of independent, undiscriminating aid provided to soldiers who are wounded, sick or shipwrecked or who have been taken prisoner, and thus cannot defend themselves. There is also protection from the effects of war for civilians. This protection is granted through several international instruments, the basis of which is the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.

  1. Geneva Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, of 12 August 1949

This convention aims to protect wounded or sick military personnel, but also the people who come to their aid, the buildings that shelter them and the supplies required for these purposes. The symbol of the red cross on the white background is the emblem that indicates this immunity.

The first version of this convention was drafted in 1864, following the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Although this convention was a laudable initiative for humanity, it had to undergo many changes to make it more effective and modern. In 1906, the 1864 convention underwent extensive revision. The last amendment were introduced after World War II.

The last version of the convention lists, in article 131, the categories of people who are assimilated with the armed forces and therefore protected by the Convention. In addition, clarifications were made regarding the information to be provided on the wounded captured and respect to be paid to the dead.

New provisions also provided greater protection to medical personnel captured by the enemy, so they could continue to provide care despite capture.

The final chapters allow medical helicopters to fly in neutral countries under certain conditions, as well as obtaining a guarantee regarding protection of the Red Cross emblem.

  1. Geneva Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea, of 12 August 1949

The final version of the convention, was developed following after World War II.

The second Geneva Convention deals with Armed Forces at sea. It contains similar principles as those found under the first Geneva Conventions but with specificities relating to naval warfare.

  1. Geneva Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War

This third convention is the result of improvements to the 1929 Convention, and the chapter on prisoners of war in the Hague Rules. The significant addition of provisions, inspired by these two instruments, showed the willingness of nations to move captivity under the domain of IHL. Protection of prisoners of war was one of Henry Dunant's concerns at the time the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was created.

The events of World War II made clear that changes were required to the 1929 Convention. With the changes that arose in the conduct of war and the ensuing consequences, it was necessary to expand the protections provided by the status of prisoner of war.

Essentially, the changes focused on the guarantee of this protection to military personal who surrender. A particular system of captivity, taking into consideration the importance of the work of prisoners, the aid they receive or the proceedings instituted against them was established.

It was also necessary to reinforce the principle of immediate release of prisoners at the end of hostilities, as well as to give the bodies responsible for ensuring proper application of the rules a base and effectiveness that was as independent as possible.

  1. Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War

Development of the convention on the protection of civilians represented major progress in the area of humanitarian law. Although civilian protection was well established in the doctrine, this text proclaimed the generally acknowledged respect for the dignity of the human being. In legal instruments prior to 1949, the existing provisions dealt with important aspects but too succinctly to be effective. They did not take into consideration, strictly speaking, the treatment of civilians in occupied territory.

Furthermore, with the development of new weapons and thus the significant expansion of armies' range of action through inventions at the turn of the century, it was imperative to acknowledge that civilians were indeed part of war and subject to the same dangers as military personnel.

When the third convention on prisoners of war was being drafted, the ICRC suggested developing the convention on the protection of civilians at the same time. Since not all governments agreed on the urgency to provide civilian protection, this project had to be advocated again after World War II.

Following the atrocities committed in that conflict, the ICRC sent a message to all governments informing them of its intent to resume work on the convention on the protection of civilians.

This new convention guarantees “the respect, human dignity and value of the human being, by placing beyond any attack the rights that are, essentially, attached and the freedoms without which they lose their reason for living”.  Article 42 lists the people covered by the convention.

This convention includes general protection of populations against certain effects of war and the establishment of medical and safety facilities and areas as well as neutral areas. In addition, provisions on the protection of civilian hospitals, measures to protect children and measures on the exchange of family news are also included.

  1. The Additional Protocols of 1977

Additional Protocols I and II are a result of the 1974-1977 Diplomatic Conference on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts.

They were developed following the appearance of new forms of conflicts, including non-international armed conflict. Until then, internal conflicts were covered only by article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions.

At the time of adoption in 1977, decolonization conflicts, such as wars of independence, civil wars and guerrilla wars were widespread. It was thus urgent for the international community to create a legal tool to regulate these types of conflicts.

The first Additional Protocol complements the 1949 Geneva Conventions. In addition to expanding the definition of international armed conflict to include national wars of liberation, restricts the right of the parties to the conflict to select methods and means of warfare . For example, weapons and methods of warfare that inflict superfluous injury are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are also prohibited, as are attacks against civilian populations, civilian persons, cultural objects, places of worship, civilian objects, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, the natural environment and works and installations containing dangerous forces. Some IHL violations were elevated to the status of war crimes. A Fact-Finding Commission was created with the mandate to investigate violations of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I. Civilian defence organizations were protected, while major provisions on the delivery of aid to the civilian population were adopted.

The second Additional Protocol broke new ground by making internal conflicts subject to international law, and explicitly stipulated that internal tensions and riots did not fall under IHL.

This Protocol covers an aspect of conflicts that involve non-government groups such as guerrilla groups and groups hostile to the government in power. However, certain conditions regarding the level of organization of these dissident groups must be met before this Protocol can be invoked. Notwithstanding the application of Additional Protocol II, the status of insurgents is not affected.

Additional Protocol II reinforces the fundamental guarantees for people who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities, and prohibits attacks against the civilian population, civilian persons, objects indispensable to the survival of the population, works and installations containing dangerous forces, cultural objects and places of worship. Forced displacement of the civilian population is also covered, as well as protection of the wounded, sick and shipwrecked. Protection of medical and religious personnel is enshrined in the Protocol, as well as that of medical missions, units and transports. The rights of people deprived of their liberty are recognized as are their judicial guarantees.

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