This year marks the 75th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, a cornerstone of IHL, and the 160th anniversary of the first 1864 Geneva Convention. These milestones invite us to ponder a critical question: can international treaties drafted decades ago retain relevance in the 21st century? Are the Geneva Conventions in need of modernization, or do they possess an inherent substance flexibility that allows them to be considered timeless?

The modern edifice of IHL was partly constructed from the ashes of battlefields and the compassionate actions of individuals who witnessed the horrors of war.

Henry Dunant’s traumatic experience at Solferino laid the foundation for a movement that would change the face of the world. His book, “A Memory of Solferino”, led to the creation of both the Red Cross – and later Red Crescent – Movement, and the establishment of a convention to protect the victims of armed conflicts.

This contribution delves deeper into the historical context, the evolution of IHL, and the pressing need for continued respect and dissemination of the Geneva Conventions. It serves as a reflection on the significance of these conventions in the modern era.

An Evolving Body of Law

The notion that international law – including IHL – is static is a misconception. IHL is, by its very nature, an adaptive body of law that responds to the evolving character of conflicts.

The 1906 Geneva Convention revised and replaced the 1864 treaty to further improve the condition of sick and wounded soldiers.

The use of chemical weapons and experiences related to the protection of prisoners of war during the First World War led to the inception of, respectively, the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare in 1925 and the 1929 Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war.

The experience of the First World War and other conflicts during the twenties triggered debates on the necessity to protect civilians. It led to an expert commission set up by the ICRC and the so-called 1934 Tokyo Draft. This draft for a Convention “on the Condition and Protection of Civilians of enemy nationality who are on territory belonging to or occupied by a belligerent” would have been a cornerstone in the protection of civilians. It should have realized into an international treaty in 1940, but the outbreak of the Second World War cancelled the diplomatic conference.

In other words, the 1949 Geneva Conventions themselves are the result of decades-long efforts to expand and keep up to date the scope of the law.

Since their adoption, IHL has continued to evolve, for instance with the addition of two protocols in 1977 and treaties regulating specific weapons. Today, the debates have expanded to include the regulation of autonomous weapons systems, cyberwarfare, and the implications of artificial intelligence in armed conflict.

But does that mean that the 1949 Conventions are outdated?

The Enduring Relevance of the Geneva Conventions

The Geneva Conventions were not born out of abstract principles but out of the visceral reality of conflict and its victims. This connection to the lived experience of war gives the Conventions their strength. The various generations of states representatives who negotiated and signed these treaties were not distant diplomats but individuals – many of them having a military background – who had witnessed the ravages of war firsthand. Their agreement to impose limits on the conduct of war through these treaties speaks volumes about the resonance of the humanitarian principles enshrined in IHL.

The language of the Conventions is one of pragmatism and practicality, designed to be understood and implemented by those involved in armed conflict. They provide clear, actionable guidelines that have been shaped by the needs and experiences of combatants and non-combatants alike. This practical nature ensures that the 1949 Geneva Conventions are more than just idealistic aspirations; they are functional tools that have been—and continue to be—applied in conflicts around the globe to mitigate the suffering of those affected by war.

Despite the passage of time and the transformation of warfare, the core principles of the Geneva Conventions remain as relevant as ever. They continue to be discussed, interpreted, and applied. The Pictet commentaries and the ongoing project on updated commentaries are testaments to the living nature of the Conventions.

The Geneva Conventions remain as vital today as they were at their inception, addressing the timeless and universal challenges of armed conflict. The wounded and their caregivers continue to require protection, a fact underscored by the “health care in danger” project. Prisoners of war still need protection. Civilians, often the most affected, also still suffer the direct and indirect consequences of hostilities and must be afforded adequate protection. The fundamental protections afforded by the Geneva Conventions address the universal suffering intrinsic to warfare.

Overall, the Geneva Conventions’ provisions ensure that even amidst conflict, there are standards of care and respect for human dignity. These issues persist in modern warfare, and the Geneva Conventions provide a framework to address them, demonstrating their ongoing relevance and the necessity for their unwavering application.

The need for better respect

The challenges facing IHL are not rooted in its content or principles, which have withstood the test of time. The real issue lies in the dissemination and enforcement of these laws.

Despite concerted efforts to educate and promote adherence to IHL, there remains a significant lack of knowledge about its statutes among those engaged in conflicts.

This ignorance, coupled with a disregard for the law by numerous belligerents, leads to frequent violations of the Geneva Conventions, whether intentional or not.

History has repeatedly demonstrated that violations of IHL do not yield long-term strategic benefits. Instead, they sow the seeds of enduring hatred and a desire for revenge that continue far beyond the end of hostilities.

In other words, respecting the Geneva Conventions is in the best interest of all parties involved in a conflict.

The Geneva Conventions are sufficiently modern and comprehensive to address contemporary challenges in warfare. The primary issue is not the content of IHL but the need for its better respect and application in the field of conflict. It is this respect for the law that must be cultivated to ensure the protection and dignity of all individuals affected by war.

Conclusion: A body of law by the people for the people

The first Geneva Convention of 1864 represents a monumental achievement in human history, with civil society playing a crucial role in the development of IHL. Indeed, 5 citizens from Geneva convinced representatives to create the Red Cross Movement and, later, convinced Switzerland to convoke a diplomatic conference. Since then, civil society has continuously played a tremendous role in the development and diffusion of IHL, including in the most recent treaties.

This unique heritage demands ownership, preservation, and active promotion. While states and combatants bear the primary responsibility for respecting the 1949 Geneva Conventions, we should all stand for a better respect of these conventions, because we might all to benefit from the protections they offer.

It is no coincidence that the 34th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, that will take place in October 2024, wants to strengthen a culture of respect for IHL. A draft resolution is even entitled “Toward a universal culture of compliance with international humanitarian law”.

The Geneva Conventions have transformed the lives of millions. Let us take ownership and remember that IHL is a body of law by the people, for the people. It is our collective responsibility to uphold the dignity and limit the suffering of those affected by conflict.