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As important today as it was then: the Geneva Conventions marks 70th anniversary

You have probably heard of the Geneva Conventions before, but are you familiar with what they say, who they protect, and how they continue to impact us?

Seventy years ago, the Geneva Conventions were created. To honour this 70th anniversary, we are taking a closer look at the four Geneva Conventions:

  1. The Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field;

  1. The Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea;

 The first and second GC focus on the protection, respect and care of wounded, sick and shipwrecked combatants. Those who have these legal protections include members of armed forces, members of organized resistance groups, civilian members of the military, and inhabitants of a non-occupied territory who spontaneously resist invading forces with force. Under Article 7, medical units are also given protection under International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
  1. The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War;

Prisoners of War (POWs) are to be placed in hygienic and healthy conditions throughout their confinment. At the end of armed conflict, POWs must, under law, be repatriated “without delay.”
  1. The Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians Persons in Time of War

This provides protection to “protected persons” who “find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals.” Article 27 broadly states that protected persons are entitled to respect, honour, and to be treated with humanity and shielded from violence. Children are also given the right of education during armed conflict.
Each of these conventions, and their two additional protocols that were adopted in 1977, and which complemented the Conventions,  reflect and develop the four core principles of IHL: military necessity; humanity; distinction; and proportionality.
Military necessity gives the parties the right to do only what is necessary to gain a military advantage, so long as it follows the other rules and principles of IHL.
Humanity complements this principle by prohibiting all unnecessary suffering, injury, and destruction.
The principle of distinction means that there is an obligation to distinguish between military objectives, such as military personnel and infrastructure, and the civilian populations and their property. Civilians are not to be targeted, only military objectives can be targeted under IHL.
Proportionality means that any attack in which civilian casualties are expected must be weighed against the military advantage anticipated. Attacks that will cause more harm to civilians than military advantage are prohibited
There is also Common Article 3 which governs non-international armed conflicts. This article is often referred to as a “convention within a convention” as non-international armed conflicts are otherwise not addressed by the Geneva Conventions. The underlying principles of Common Article 3 are the respect for humanity, including the wounded and sick, non-discrimination when aiding those in need, and protecting life in conflict.
The Geneva Conventions evolve in order to remain relevant to current conflicts, like in 1977, when Additional Protocol II was adopted to advance the protections of those affected by non-international armed conflicts.

Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC, urged the global community to “remember that the spirit of the Conventions – to uphold human dignity even in the midst of war – is as important now as it was then. Let us always remember that the Conventions are law - but somehow transcend law - as what they require is not only legal but just and right. Let all of us do what we can to ensure that this spirit prevails.”


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