August 12, 1949 is a significant date in world history. It was on that day that the plenipotentiaries of some sixty States signed the fundamental charters of humanity – what are now known as the four Geneva Conventions.
The Geneva Conventions are a vital global pledge born out of the kind of suffering we see today in Sudan, Yemen, Ukraine, amongst other conflicts around the world. They embody the pragmatic balance between military necessity and humanitarian considerations; setting down the fundamental obligation that people – even in times of armed conflict – must be treated with humanity.
The 1949 Conventions now in force are the modern embodiment of international humanitarian law, and the expression of the very ideal of the ICRC. As we mark 74 Years of the Geneva Conventions, it is a moment for us as an organisation to reflect on our history, and reaffirm the enduring relevance of the Conventions to the changing dynamics of conflict
Born of the Horrors of War
The Second World War remains a conflict marked by violence on an unprecedented scale; but what distinguished the conflict was not only the extreme violence perpetuated by one combatant against another, but that much of the violence was directed against civilians.
During the war, the ICRC’s energies were largely taken up by its activities in the field, but as the guardian of international humanitarian law, it continued to discuss the possibility of relaunching the process of revising and extending the law of Geneva as soon as possible.
The law of Geneva may be summarized in a single principle, namely: persons placed hors de combat and those taking no direct part in hostilities shall be respected, protected and humanely treated – Jean Pictet, former Vice President
In February 1945, even before the end of hostilities, the ICRC announced to governments and National Red Cross Societies its intention to revise the existing Geneva Conventions and have new conventions adopted, organising a Preliminary Conference of National Red Cross Societies to study the conventions protecting victims of war in September 1945, followed by a Conference of (Allied) Government Experts in 1947.
The government experts supported the ICRC’s proposals, including that of applying the Conventions in all cases of armed conflict, including internal ones. Emboldened by this support, the ICRC informed the Swiss authorities of its wish to convene another diplomatic conference.
The ICRC Delegation at the Diplomatic Conference for the revision of the existing Geneva Conventions
The diplomatic conference opened on 21 April in the presence of representatives from 64 countries, covering almost every State in the world at that time. Following four months of negotiations, the Conventions were signed and adopted.
Today the Geneva Conventions remain the cornerstone of contemporary international humanitarian law. They contain the essential rules protecting persons who are not or no longer taking a direct part in hostilities when they find themselves in the hands of an adverse party. Universally agreed upon but not always universally respected, they remain as necessary and life-saving as they were intended to be then.
IHL in the 21st Century
International humanitarian law does not reside within the confines of legal texts; its power resides in the very real conflict contexts – responding to the ongoing violence in the Sahel, Afghanistan, Syria and the hundreds of situations of armed conflict across the world. 74 years later, the Geneva Conventions remain as relevant as they did in the 20th century. This relevance is observed with each case where the law is effectively respected – the civilian spared, the detainee treated humanely, the hospital not attacked.
It is true of course that the conflicts of today have changed significantly since the Second World War. Urbanized warfare, an increasing number of armed groups, partnered warfare are posing new and difficult dilemmas. Rapidly developing technologies are creating new frontlines in cyberspace, as well as new ways to fight, for example autonomous weapon systems and remote technologies.
As the ICRC, our collective challenge is finding ways to ensure greater respect for IHL within the changing dynamics of conflict
While the global landscape of conflict has changed, so too has international humanitarian law and the applicability of the Geneva Conventions. And the ICRC has been present each step of the way, seeking to ensure that IHL remains applicable to the realities on the ground. Since the adoption of the Conventions in 1949, they have been supplemented and developed by three Additional Protocols – drawn up essentially as a response to changes in warfare, most notably the expansion of guerrilla warfare, and the increased suffering of civilians in armed conflict due in part to developments in weapons technology.
As conflict continues to evolve, so does our responsibility as an organisation to work with States and non-state actors to promote universal and unequivocal respect, and implementation of IHL. Seventy-four years later, the Geneva Conventions are much more than a legacy, or simply something to be proud of and commemorate. They stand as a testament to the spirit of international humanitarian law and the work of the ICRC. And we see this everyday – when a wounded person is allowed through a checkpoint, when a child on the front lines receives food and other humanitarian aid or when the living conditions of detainees are improved.