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Geneva Conventions

70 years on, how relevant are the Geneva Conventions?

Israeli army launches bombs onto Gaza, November 12 2018
Israeli army launches bombs onto Gaza, November 12 2018 © AFP

The Geneva Conventions mark 70 years of upholding standards of humanitarian treatment during times of war. Revised in the aftermath of World War II, how relevant are they today?


It’s easy to say that the conventions can't be relevant today given the technology involved in warfare these days.

And especially since the cold war that changed the typical notion of a war.

But the conventions do set a certain standard that are based on universally applicable terms.

“What they [conventions] do, is they kind of enshrine basic principles of humane treatment […] In some way [they] have remained valid because they have the basic principles of humanity but they have also adapted over recent decades, depending on how conflicts were fought. And so additional treaties were added, for example banning landmines and others,” explains Eva Svoboda, the deputy director of law and policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, the ICRC.

And so while the conventions were written with the aim of preventing the horrors of World War Two, “much of the suffering or the impact on civilians is actually much the same. So they are still relevant but also they have been adapted in the meantime” adds Svoboda.

Conventions pre-date World War Two

The idea of a convention came about after the last major world conflict of the 19th century, the Franco-Austrian war, also known as the Second Italian War of Independence.

This was the last war in the 19th century that saw many different nations fight.

Henry Dunant, a young Swiss man, witnessed the Battle of Solferino, through his work as a war reporter.

During the fighting, he tried to care for the wounded and dying and in 1862 he self-published a detailed account of the aftermath of the battle in 'A Memory of Solferino'.

Soon after, his push for a permanent presence to ensure humanitarian aid during times of war was realised through the creation of the Red Cross in 1864.

And with that, the Geneva Conventions produced their first codified international treaty.

In the aftermath of World War One, two conventions were produced.

Following World War Two, four were written and ratified by countries.

Four conventions 1949 onwards

“They related to the protection of those who have fallen in combat, they relate to the protection of civilians, they relate to the protections of prisoners of war. And all four of them incorporate some principles on how wars should be fought, ultimately balancing what is militarily necessary with humanity. So protecting those who are no longer or cannot or are injured, or can no longer fight,” explains Svoboda.

But  violations made during times of war, such as in Syria and Yemen, are seemingly commonplace.

In those instances, it’s easy to assume that the conventions make very little difference or have outgrown their initial purpose.

“When I have visited prisoners you do see the impact that it [Geneva conventions] makes. It does make a difference when a family can finally contact a lost relative or, for example, when a family who has a missing relative is finally able to identify the dead. So those are very real, positive impacts that Geneva conventions o the lives of people in armed conflicts,” adds Svoboda.

But she cautions that “we also cannot be naïve and ignore the fact that they are being violated.”

That, however, is more a case of implementing the treaties and not the conventions themselves.

Room to grow

To date, 196 countries have ratified the Geneva Conventions, though not everyone has ratified Additional Protocols.

Ratification of the conventions is largely seen as a major first step, but it is only the beginning of the process.

“It needs to be translated into action, it needs to be translated into domestic legislation. And then also, people need to be trained. Judges need to be trained, in understanding these conventions. Armed forces need to be trained, and they need to know ‘what can I and what can I not do’ in armed conflict,” stresses the deputy director of law and policy at the ICRC.

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