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The First Geneva Convention

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The First Geneva Convention

On August 22, 1864 the first Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field was held. It was the first of four treaties of what we often refer to as the Geneva Conventions. Its purpose was to set the rules for International Law for the protection of people in armed conflicts. This paper will discuss the history of those provisions and how they continue to affect the world today.

Henry Dunant was a relief activist who had seen first hand the suffering of soldiers left on the battlefield after the Battle of the Solferino in 1859. The deficiency of truces, accommodations and staff to give these soldiers help inspired Dunant to publish an account of what he had seen. He called on peers to hold an international conference and soon after helped found the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1863. This conference allowed the Geneva Committee to set the main principals that would later become the Geneva Conventions.

With the success of the conference, the Swiss Federal Council invited the governments of Europe and the USA to a diplomatic conference in August of 1864. It was at this conference that the principals called for by Dunant and his allies were adopted. Sixteen governments and Kingdoms agreed on the first Geneva Convention and later that same year, in December, two more would join.

The first Geneva Convention puts into law that the sick and wounded soldiers are to be protected and respected. They are to be cared for and treated humanely, in all circumstances, whether friend or enemy. These protections are also extended to military medical units, personnel, transport and materials. It also established an emblem of the red cross on a white background, as well as when this emblem can be used and restrictions to its use.

In 1906 the Second Geneva Conference helped expand articles to include maritime operations. This conference updated the 1864 articles and had thirty-five attendees almost doubling the attendance of the first conference.

In 1929 another Conference was held that resulted in a third version of the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armies in the Field. The conference also adopted the Convention relative to the treatment of Prisoners of War, after learning of the depraved experiences of prisoner treatment in World War I.

Following World War II there was a movement toward pacifism and humanitarianism. The Nuremberg trials had revealed horrid war crimes which led to another series of conferences, held in 1949, updating and expanding the Conventions into the four we recognize today as the Geneva Conventions. There were also minor updates in 1977 and 2005 to these.

These conventions work well when all the parties involved are easily defined. Warfare today is very different than from the nineteenth century conflicts of Henry Dunant. Modern combatants do not always wear designations that identify them as the enemy. Terrorist organizations and combatants that are farmers one day and fighters the next don’t care about the Geneva Conventions. Groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda have philosophies of warfare that are innately counterintuitive to the Conventions. In the Articles protected persons should exclusively be engaged in the humanitarian mission of medical operations, but they could lose their protections by committing acts harmful to the enemy. This leads to other issues because the articles give medical personnel the right to carry personal light weapons, like a sidearm or rifle, without effecting their protected status. Could these same personnel defend a medical facility from attack by non-state actors using heavy weapons without losing their protections? The rise of suicide bombers and IED’s show the need for continuing revision and updating of the Geneva Conventions.

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