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What is the Geneva Convention?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Geneva Convention refers to several treaties agreed upon by the international community regarding the fair treatment of prisoners of war, civilians in a war-afflicted country and the treatment of the injured during wartime. The first Geneva International Conference took place in 1863, and was a response to the founding of the International Red Cross. It was largely inspired initially by the written work of Henri Dunant, and his humanitarian efforts during the Battle of Solferino in Italy.

Seeing the appalling number of wounded during and after the battle, Dunant organized many of the civilians of the town to help the soldiers medically. He further stipulated that help should be given to the wounded without regard to what “side” they had fought on. Dunant’s written description of his efforts in Solferino inspired the formation of the Red Cross, and one of the first of the Geneva Convention treaties.

Since that first meeting, additional meetings have resulted in four treaties that make up the Geneva Convention, and three protocols. Not all countries have signed the Geneva Convention treaties, and clearly some countries flagrantly violate the treaties in times of war. Some countries sign the Geneva Convention with reservations or declarations, but most countries sign the treaties without dispute.

The principals of the Geneva Convention are the following:

  • People participating in a war are minimally bound to offer medical aid to injured soldiers of either party to a war or conflict,
  • People who have surrendered may not be injured further by another side and must be treated humanely.
  • Those who are not actively engaged in combat cannot be murdered, raped, tortured or mutilated.
  • Any sentencing of a person accused of crimes must be done before a court.
  • When possible, armistice or cease-fire should be called in order to collect the dead and wounded, especially after a battle or engagement.
  • A person from the opposing side should keep a record of an injured soldier’s death to be forwarded to the country for which he/she fought.
  • Establishments for the medical treatment of soldiers should never be attacked.

    The basic principals of the Geneva Convention also extend in particular to treating wounded soldiers at sea. Further, hospitals must be marked with a red cross and in plain sight so they will not be attacked. More particulars exist, but primarily these treaties exist so that captured or wounded soldiers can be treated humanely, and without prejudice.

    Those who sign the treaties of the Geneva Convention and break them are guilty of war crimes and may be tried accordingly. Such trials take place in a world court, like that of Slobodan Milošević's. These trials are normally as public as possible to ensure that impartiality in judgment exists. Being convicted of severe war crimes tends to result in execution.

  • Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
    Tricia Christensen
    By Tricia Christensen
    With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
    Discussion Comments
    By anon158778 — On Mar 08, 2011

    I would like to know if Geneva Convention supports the right to worship.

    By anon146266 — On Jan 25, 2011

    Does anyone know what this means? 'Issued with AF W3050 B under the Geneva Convenion'

    By anon110821 — On Sep 13, 2010

    yes the violation of the geneva convention was bad.

    By anon99136 — On Jul 25, 2010

    Does the Geneva Convention have any point if only one side in a conflict abides by it?

    By anon32696 — On May 25, 2009

    Analyze the violation of Geneva convention 1949 in the us war against Iraq.

    Tricia Christensen
    Tricia Christensen
    With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
    Learn more
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