The World of International Organizations Explained

Geneva Conventions at 70 are a call to duty

Statues of refugees outside the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva (ARÊTE/John Heilprin)

GENEVA — International observers marked the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions on Monday examining their relevance and limits — and ways to boost enforcement of their bedrock international humanitarian laws.

The Geneva Conventions, adopted on August 12, 1949 in the aftermath of World War II, govern the rules of war and military occupation. They are the basic principles that everyone in armed conflict are legally obliged to follow to ensure a measure of humanity, striking a balance between military and humanitarian needs.

“Respect for life and dignity: the message of the Geneva Conventions,” said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Geneva-based guardian of the four conventions.

“Seventy years on, the rules remain clear,” he said. “Do not target civilians. Do not rape, torture or execute. Do not target hospitals or schools. Do not use illegal weapons. Do not threaten, kidnap or kill those who help.”

But the treaties have not managed to limit some of the past seven decades’ worst brutalities, such as those in Syria’s eight-year civil war, or in Myanmar, where the army has been carrying out what United Nations officials call a military-planned campaign of genocide against the ethnic Rohingya Muslims.

“The Geneva Conventions were created to ensure that people’s rights are preserved and defended, even in times of conflict,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. “Seventy years on, compliance has deteriorated, putting the lives of children, women and men at risk. We have the rules and laws of war. We need to make them a reality.”

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that as the Geneva Conventions turn 70, “some outrageous war crimes, such as by Syrian and Russian forces in Syria, shouldn’t obscure that in most conflicts the conventions give vital protection to noncombatants. Better enforcement is needed for the exceptions.”

To mark the anniversary, the U.N. Security Council planned to discuss the strengths and weakness of international humanitarian law at a meeting on Tuesday.

“Despite the comprehensive nature of the 1949 Conventions, in the 21st century their effective implementation has encountered several obstacles, resulting from both the actions (or inactions) of states and the increasing complexity of armed conflicts,” Poland’s U.N. Ambassador Joanna Wronecka said in a briefing paper ahead of the meeting.

“We still all too often observe violations of international humanitarian law — regarding rules of combat as well as rules of protection — that result in immense suffering, inhumane treatment of people, including women, children and other vulnerable groups, the injured and sick, persons with disabilities, forcibly displaced people and detainees,” she said.

Flags above the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva (ARÊTE/John Heilprin)

Swiss initiative

Switzerland, the depositary of the Geneva Conventions, hosted a diplomatic conference in Geneva in August 1864 that led to the signing of the first Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.”

In 1899, the Geneva Convention was extended to maritime warfare. In 1929,  a second Geneva Convention was adopted on the treatment of prisoners of war. Swiss leaders convened another diplomatic conference in Geneva in 1948 to reflect on lessons from World War II.

“This resulted in the revision of the existing conventions, the addition of a new convention covering the civilian population and the victims of internal armed conflicts, and to the convention laying down rules for armed conflict at sea,” according to the Swiss Federal Archives. “The four conventions that emerged from this work in 1949 came into force a year later and remain so to this day.”

Boyd van Dijk, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, called the Geneva Conventions “the most important rules ever formulated for armed conflict and universally ratified” even though they were not perfect.

“Their achievements are numerous — they banned hostage taking, collective penalties, torture, gave more rights to POWs, strengthened the ICRC’s position, and developed a set of unique penal provisions that are now at the heart of the International Criminal Court’s legal guidebook,” said van Dijk, who has been preparing a book on the making of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

“But drafters failed on many counts, too,” he said. “They failed in trying to persuade U.K.-U.S. hegemony to accept restrictions on air bombing, nuclear weapons, and starvation — which would undermine the ICRC’s later operation in Biafra. They also perpetuated several gender hierarchies.”

The world of international organizations explained.

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