The Encyclopedia is a project of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights launched on 2 December 2013. The Enyclopedia aims to provide accurate, up-to-date information on weapons, the effects of their use, and their regulation under public international law, in a format that is accessible to non-specialists.+ Find out more
The four Geneva Conventions adopted on 12 August 1949 are an important part of international humanitarian law (IHL). They are inspired by the idea that even in the midst of hostilities, the dignity of the human person shall be respected. The Geneva Conventions protect all those who take no active part in hostilities, namely, civilians and combatants who are wounded, sick, shipwrecked or captured.In the view of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 'the terms "direct” and “active” refer to the same quality and degree of individual participation in hostilities'. See, N. Melzer, Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law, 2009, p. 43. Protected persons shall in all circumstances be treated humanely and cared for. Each convention focuses on one of these categories of people:
Certain provisions are contained in all four conventions with practically identical wording:These articles are said to be common to all four Geneva Conventions, e.g. ‘Article 1 common’ (Art. 1 GCI-IV) or ‘common Article 3’ (Art. 3 GCI-IV).
The 1949 Geneva Conventions were adopted against the backdrop of the disastrous consequences of the Second World War, a war waged on an unprecedented scale. They revise and build on previous treaties, reaffirming established principles and adapting them to the conditions of modern warfare, and establish new rules. Notably, Geneva Convention III broadens the category of persons entitled to prisoner of war status and defines more precisely the conditions of captivity. The fourth Geneva Convention is the first treaty to be specifically and entirely dedicated to the protection of civilians in wartime. It provides for the general protection of civilian populations from the effects of hostilities (but does not contain rules limiting the use of weapons) and governs the status and treatment of protected persons – civilians on the territory of one of the parties to the conflict of which they are not nationals, and civilians in occupied territory.For more information on the history of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, see the ICRC Commentary to the Geneva Conventions, 1952.
Most provisions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions apply in case of an international armed conflict, whether it is a declared war or ‘any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties’ as well as in case of a partial or total occupation of the territory of a High contracting Party.Art. 2 common GCI-IV Only common Article 3 applies in armed conflicts not of an international character. The Geneva Conventions are universally ratified, and almost all of its provisions are widely considered to be reflective of customary law and as such universally binding.See ICRC customary IHL study, 2005, in particular, Rules: Chapter V - Treatment of Civilians and Persons Hors de Combat. Furthermore, fundamental rules of IHL enshrined in the Geneva Conventions are rules of jus cogens. For a discussion, see, e.g., V. Chetail, ‘The contribution of the International Court of Justice to international humanitarian law’, in 85(850) International Review of the Red Cross (2003); R. Nieto-Navia, International Peremptory Norms (Jus Cogens) and International Humanitarian Law, in L. C. Vorah et al. (Eds.), Man’s Inhumanity To Man, 2003.
However, very few provisions of the Geneva Conventions deal with weapons or the conduct of hostilities (see below). These matters are mainly regulated by the Hague Conventions of 1907 and the two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1977.
Last updated on: 08 August 2017