Geneva Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 established international norms of conduct in warfare that addressed assistance and protection of members of the armed forces, prisoners of war, and, especially, civilians.

Summary of Event

The unparalleled loss of life in World War II refocused efforts to establish norms of conduct in warfare, efforts that diplomats and scholars have made throughout history. The First Geneva Convention of 1864 laid the groundwork for a number of subsequent conventions. Article 6 of the first of the Geneva “laws on war” attempted to establish the principle that “wounded or sick combatants, to whatever nation they may belong, shall be collected and cared for.” A major force behind this convention was Jean-Henri Dunant, the founder of the International Red Cross. The 1864 convention was a significant departure from previous agreements among states that addressed rules of state conduct in war, innovative because it moved toward the protection of individual human rights during hostilities. Geneva Conventions Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations International law War crimes;Geneva Conventions [kw]Geneva Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in War (Aug. 12, 1949) [kw]Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in War, Geneva (Aug. 12, 1949) [kw]War, Geneva Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in (Aug. 12, 1949) Geneva Conventions Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations International law War crimes;Geneva Conventions [g]Europe;Aug. 12, 1949: Geneva Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in War[02980] [g]Switzerland;Aug. 12, 1949: Geneva Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in War[02980] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 12, 1949: Geneva Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in War[02980] [c]Military history;Aug. 12, 1949: Geneva Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in War[02980] [c]Human rights;Aug. 12, 1949: Geneva Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in War[02980] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Aug. 12, 1949: Geneva Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in War[02980] Rugger, Paul Dunant, Jean-Henri

A forced march of British soldiers taken prisoner at Dunkirk, France, in June, 1940.

(National Archives)

During World War II, the principles contained in the original Geneva Convention and its supplements and revisions were not successful in preventing military actions against noncombatants. While existing conventions did protect several categories of persons, events during the war suggested that the original Geneva Conventions required revision. The German policy of genocide against European Jews and the Allied policy of bombing civilian population centers (including the atomic destruction of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan) were examples of violations of the humanitarian principles contained in the original convention. After the war, the war crimes tribunals in Nuremberg Nuremberg Trials and Tokyo suggested to the international community that the most flagrant violations of human rights during war were not against soldiers or prisoners but rather against civilians in the form of forced labor, relocation, and torture.

Before World War II ended, there was general agreement that the protection of individual human rights would be incorporated in some fashion into the United Nations organization proposed by the Allied powers. The London Charter that established the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg identified murder, enslavement, deportation, and other actions as crimes against humanity. The United Nations Charter of 1945 declared that the advancement of human rights was a primary goal of member states. The modern concept of human rights was also contained in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

In the twentieth century, the establishment of norms of conduct designed to protect civilian populations in war was addressed primarily by the International Committee of the Red Cross International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Although the United Nations has frequently referred to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the conventions were prepared under the auspices of the ICRC, then under ICRC president Paul Rugger, and the Swiss government. By the late 1940’s, the efforts of the United Nations to establish laws of war had fallen victim to the superpower rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. Between 1945 and 1948, the ICRC conferred with a number of diplomats and experts about clarifying the existing conventions as well as establishing more efficient monitoring structures.

These efforts led to the Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War (1949) , held in Geneva from April to August, 1949. The sixty-four states represented at the conference endorsed four international conventions that addressed postwar concerns about wounded combatants in the field and at sea, the treatment of prisoners of war, and protection of civilians in periods of state warfare. The overall agreement was divided into four separate conventions linked by general principles included in the preamble of each convention.

The first and second conventions were not dramatic departures from international agreements established before World War II. The 1949 conventions on the amelioration of the condition of wounded, sick, and shipwrecked military personnel were in large part a restatement of the humanitarian principles contained in the 1929 Geneva Convention and the 1907 Hague Convention. In both conventions, combatants on land or sea who were unable or unwilling to engage in military operations were not to be murdered, tortured, deliberately subjected to illness, or denied medical treatment. The first two conventions also restated both the noncombatant status of medical personnel and clergy as well as the special status of vehicles and facilities marked with the distinctive symbol of the ICRC.

The third convention, the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, was an attempt to broaden the 1929 Geneva Convention that addressed treatment of prisoners. While many elements of the 1929 convention remained, the later conventions were significant because they attempted to grant prisoner-of-war status to a number of categories of persons who were previously denied such status. Under the 1949 conventions, partisans, regular forces who profess allegiance to a state not recognized by the detaining power, and military support staff possessed the same rights under international law as regular combatants. The convention also stated that prisoners cannot be punished without a proper legal tribunal.

The fourth convention was the first international agreement on the laws of war to establish norms of conduct in the treatment of civilians. Previous conventions, including the 1864 Geneva Convention, had not specifically addressed the rights of civilians during war. Although most of the provisions in the 1949 convention were adopted by the ICRC in 1939, the outbreak of World War II prevented their implementation. The Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Times of War, adopted in 1949, was in large part accepted by the international community as a response to the savage Nazi wartime occupation of Europe. The Nazi practices of denial of medical care to civilians, mental and physical coercion, imprisonment of civilians as hostages, and use of civilians for medical experiments were prohibited. The fourth convention established a code of conduct for occupying powers that prohibited murder, torture, and corporal punishment of civilians in occupied territories. The fourth convention also established a system of monitoring actions of states through neutral states and the ICRC.


At first glance, the large number of nations that were parties to the 1949 conventions suggests that the principles contained in the conventions became central components of international law. Unlike domestic law, international law is based on custom and precedents. States generally tend to obey international law when it benefits their interests. Events after World War II suggest that the legal and political difficulties that hindered previous conventions also applied to the conventions of 1949. While a number of signatory states have publicly embraced the conventions over the years, it is apparent that states have not forsworn the use of armed force.

Historically, the creation of standards of conduct in war has tended to lag behind both military strategy and technology. It is clear when examining the conduct of wars since 1949 that civilians continued to be subjected to the burdens of armed conflict. Because they were in large part a response to the devastation of World War II, the 1949 conventions did not address the conduct of military operations. The conventions also did not anticipate the tremendous increase in internal armed conflict and the resulting impact on civilian populations.

Most armed conflicts after 1945 were not those between sovereign states, addressed in the 1949 conventions. Most armed conflict has been in the form of civil wars that were often supported by one or more outside states. States that were signatories to the 1949 convention frequently took the position that internal conflicts did not fall under the 1949 convention because they did not meet the convention’s definition of armed conflict. There were many examples of states refusing to recognize the application of the 1949 conventions to internal armed conflicts.

At an individual level, the 1949 conventions did not address the difficulties involved in compelling states to follow the conventions protecting civilians. While many states have recognized the human rights of military prisoners, the welfare of civilians has often been ignored by states that publicly embrace the first three Geneva conventions of 1949.

In 1970, in response to the Proclamation of Tehran Proclamation of Tehran (1968) , issued by the International Conference on Human Rights in 1968, United Nations secretary-general U Thant Thant, U [p]Thant, U;war crimes issued a report that called for a renewed emphasis on the protection of prisoners and civilians close to battle zones. U Thant’s report proposed that the ICRC expand on article 3 of the 1949 convention to apply protection to persons not participating in armed conflict. From 1971 to 1973, the ICRC held meetings in Geneva to prepare texts of two protocols to the 1949 conventions. By 1974, the protocols had been submitted to the Diplomatic Conference on the Reaffirmation and Development of Humanitarian Law in Geneva, and in June, 1977, they were adopted. Protocol 1 extended the coverage of the four Geneva Conventions to wars of “national liberation.” The broadening of the definition of armed conflict led the United States and other states to reject ratification of the protocol. Protocol 1 also prohibited methods of warfare that cause unnecessary suffering to civilian populations. Protocol 2 was an attempt to modify the rights of noncombatants in international armed conflict.

The emergence of aggressive global terrorism, including groups that acknowledge no obligation to abide by any aspect of humanitarian law and that directly target innocent civilian populations as a matter of conscious strategy, has further complicated the application of the Geneva Conventions. These complications were further exacerbated by the events of September 11, 2001, and the terrorism of subsequent years. Geneva Conventions Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations International law War crimes;Geneva Conventions

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alvarez, José E. International Organizations as Law-Makers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Study detailing the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other international organizations in shaping and even codifying international law. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bailey, Sydney D. Prohibitions and Restraints in War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. An excellent examination of the philosophical foundations of “just war” theory as well as an account of the contemporary interpretation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. A useful resource for students interested in humanitarian law or human rights in war and their relationship to arms control and disarmament. Notations, appendixes, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bennett, Angela. The Geneva Convention: The Hidden Origins of the Red Cross. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2005. A history of the significant role played by the International Red Cross in forming the 1864 Geneva Convention, considered the first international human rights treaty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bouchet-Saulnier, Francoise. The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law. Translated by Laura Brav. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. The principal provisions of the Geneva Conventions are reviewed throughout the text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coursier, Henri. Course of Five Lessons on the Geneva Convention. Geneva, Switzerland: International Committee of the Red Cross, 1963. A short and very detailed description of the four elements of the 1949 convention. Useful for students interested in the legal foundations and the Red Cross interpretation of the protocols. Notations, bibliographies, appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Draper, G. I. A. D. The Red Cross Conventions. New York: Praeger, 1958. A detailed account of the 1949 convention by an English professor of law. This volume is useful for students interested in the essential legal principles underlying the convention. Includes notations, the entire text of the 1949 convention, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Wars of National Liberation and War Criminality.” In Restraints on War, edited by Michael Howard. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. An account of the classical interpretation of the law of war and the 1949 Geneva protocols, including applicability in “just” and “unjust” warfare. Includes notations, a suggested reading list, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Leslie C. “Human Rights and the Law of Armed Conflict.” In Essays on the Modern Law of War. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Transnational, 1985. An excellent account of the historical development of rules of armed conflict. A thorough introduction to the complex subject of human rights in international law. Notations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meron, Theodor. “The Geneva Conventions as Customary Law.” American Journal of International Law 81 (January, 1989): 348-370. A detailed account of the influence of the 1949 convention on contemporary international law. Includes extensive notations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Human Rights Law-Making in the United Nations: A Critique of Instruments and Processes. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1986. A comprehensive examination of United Nations efforts to influence human rights worldwide. Because Meron draws extensively from United Nations sources, this volume is recommended to students interested in the United Nations interpretation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Index, appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neier, Aryeh. War Crimes: Brutality, Genocide, Terror, and the Struggle for Justice. New York: Times Books, 1998. An exhaustive and historical look at war crimes and the development of laws against such crimes. Features a review of the Geneva Conventions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ratner, Steven R., and Jason S. Abrams. Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law: Beyond the Nuremberg Legacy. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Detailed, scholarly examination of the impact and application of laws punishing international crime. Includes extensive discussion of the 1949 Geneva conventions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Adam, and Richard Guelff, eds. Documents on the Laws of War. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1982. An extensive collection of international agreements, dating from 1856 to 1981, on international norms of conduct in warfare. All documents are introduced by excellent prefatory notes that briefly describe the agreements. Charts, bibliography, index.

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