Oh my, a useful nodeshell rescue! Will wonders never cease?

The Geneva Convention collectively refers to five international treaties signed on the neutral ground of Geneva, Switzerland, which are primarily focused on establishing conventions for the more humane treatment of the wounded and dying in a state of war. There are several other facets to the Convention as well, which will be discussed below.

The Geneva Convention was enacted in its first incarnation, "The Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded in Time of War", in 1864. Instrumental in its creation was one Henri Durant, who as a civilian had witnessed the horrors of war in the Battle of Solpherino, fought between Austria and Italy on June 24, 1859. The images of the aftermath of this battlefield strewn with untended dying men, later recounted in his book "A Memory of Solpherino", prompted him to form the International Committee of the Red Cross, and to push for more merciful treatment of wounded soldiers on the battlefield.

The Convention was later amended in 1906, and the related Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 served to apply its tenets to naval conflicts as well. In 1929, the Geneva Convention was amended again, this time adding the provisions for which it is perhaps most famous: those dealing with the treatment of Prisoners of War. The next revision came in 1949, after World War II at an International Red Cross conference, this time in Stockholm instead of Geneva.

The text of the Convention is, as one might expect, written in the carefully-worded and dreadfully dry style of international political documents, so rather than quote it wholesale, I will instead attempt to present its main points in a more easily understandable and digestible manner.


Chapter 1. General Provisions

This section covers respect of the Convention, and specifies that countries who have accepted it must abide by it even if their opponent in war does not. It also states that neutral countries who have accepted the Convention must apply it to the treatment of medics, chaplains and wounded or sick soldiers from other wars who seek refuge in their territory. If any country, regardless of whether it has agreed to the Convention or not, cannot or will not provide proper care to their opponent's wounded or sick, they may ask any neutral country or humanitarian organization (such as the Red Cross) to step in and do so.

There is also an article in this chapter which deals with non-international conflicts, such as civil wars, that may occur inside a participating country's boundaries. In these cases, both sides must refrain from certain activities towards people taking no active part in the conflict. These prohibitions cover violence, murder, mutilation, cruel treatment, torture, taking hostages, humiliation, degradation, and improper trial and sentencing.

Chapter 2. Wounded and Sick

This chapter deals with, as might be expected, the treatment of wounded and sick soldiers. It first states that these people shall be respected and protected in all circumstances, regardless of sex, race, religion and so on. They must also not be murdered, tortured, subjected to biological experiments, left without medical attention or exposed to contagion or infection. It also states that any army abandoning its wounded to the enemy must leave some of its medical personnel and materials behind to assist in their care.

This protection is further extended to militias and volunteer corps who operate openly, have a fixed leadership structure, and "..conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war."

After any battle, both sides "shall, without delay, take all possible measures to search for and collect the wounded and sick, to protect them against pillage and ill-treatment, to ensure their adequate care, and to search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled." It is also stated that whenever possible, a cease fire must be declared to allow the removal and exchange of wounded and sick.

The capturing party must always record information about each person taken into their care, including at least their name, military serial number, birthdate, date and place of capture, and a record of any wounds or illnesses. This information must be transmitted to the proper authorities in the person's army or government as soon as possible. The same information must be recorded when possible for any dead recovered, as well as a thorough examination, before their individual burial according to their religion. Cremation and mass burial are only allowed "for imperative reasons of hygiene".

Chapter 3. Medical Units and Establishments

The safety of fixed medical establishments and mobile medical units is established in this chapter, which states that under no circumstances may they be attacked. If they or the territory in which they reside is captured, the medical personnel must be allowed to continue their duties uninterrupted. This protection may only be lifted if the medical personnel step outside their humanitarian boundaries to commit harmful acts against the enemy. Even so, they may still not be attacked until after they are warned by the enemy and given time to cease their harmful activity, after which they continue these activities.

Chapter 4. Personnel

Safety is given in this chapter to medical personnel, chaplains and administrative staff attached to medical facilities. Soldiers specially trained as emergency medical personnel are likewise protected as long as they are acting in this capacity when captured. Members of international humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross are also protected in this way.

A neutral country may lend its medical assistance only after the consent of its government and the government of the army receiving the assistance. This may not be considered by any participant in the conflict as a show of support or allegiance to either side.

Medical personnel retained in this capacity are not considered prisoners of war, but they must be given every consideration bestowed on POWs. Above and beyond this, they must be allowed to visit prisoners of war and provide them with medical attention and spiritual support. They also may not be forced to perform any work aside from their medical or religious duties. If medical personnel are captured and have no wounded, sick or prisoners of war to attend to, they may not be held and must be returned at the first possible opportunity to their own army, along with all their equipment, materials and belongings.

Chapter 5. Buildings and Material

Here it is stated that all captured buildings and material of a medical nature must be reserved for that purpose, and not used for military operations. Field commanders may make use of medical materials for their own troops only if their own supplies are exhausted and they don't endanger anyone's health in doing so. They may also use medical buildings for their own troops if necessary, so long as the people currently being cared for in them are not displaced or neglected.

Chapter 6. Medical Transports

Medical transports are here given the same protection as mobile medical units. This protection extends to aircraft employed exclusively as medical transports, as long as their routes are made known beforehand to all participants in the conflict. These aircraft must obey any request to land and be inspected, but must be allowed to continue on their way after inspection. In the event of the capture of a medical transport, or emergency landing in enemy territory of a medical aircraft, the wounded and sick aboard are considered to be prisoners of war, while the medical personnel must be treated as stated in Chapter 4.

Chapter 7. The Distinctive Emblem

This perhaps vainly long chapter details the medical emblem and how it may and may not be used. The medical emblem is declared, in honor of Switzerland, to be a red cross on a white background, although countries who already use a red crescent or red lion and sun on a white background may continue to use those symbols. These emblems must be displayed on all medical materials and equipment, as well as on flags carried by medical personnel.

Medical personnel must also wear a water-resistant armband bearing the emblem, and carry a medical identity card with their name, birthdate, rank and serial number on it in addition to the medical emblem. The card must also have the bearer's photograph and their signature and/or fingerprints. Emergency medical personnel mentioned in Chapter 4 will wear an armband with a miniature emblem on it, and carry a similar identity card stating their areas of emergency training.

All medical facilities must prominently display a flag bearing the emblem at all times, even if they are captured. The emblem may never be used, in wartime or peacetime, for anything other than declaring and protecting the existence of medical facilities or personnel. Members of the international Red Cross and similar organizations may make use of the emblem at any time, provided they are engaged in duties following the ideals of their organization.

Chapter 8. Execution of the Convention

This chapter merely states that the Commander-In-Chief of each country is bound by the agreement to see to it that all of these articles are adhered to by his or her forces, and that all efforts must be made to distribute the text of this Convention as widely as possible. Its study is also required for all members of the country's armed forces, medical personnel and chaplains.

Chapter 9. Repression of Abuses and Infractions

Anyone committing a grave breach of the rules laid down by the Convention shall be tried fairly according to the laws of his or her country. The Convention declares these grave breaches to be "wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly."

Any country not wishing to try or judge someone for one of these grave breaches may ask any other participating nation to do so. Furthermore, each party is obliged to search for people who have or are alleged to have committed a grave breach, or to have commanded another person to do so.

Final Provisions

This section of the document lays out the dates of the Convention's signing and activation, and states that it replaces all the preceding Geneva Conventions. Any country who has not signed the Convention is welcome to do so at any time, and it will go into effect for them six months from the date of their signing. Any country who has signed the Convention may denounce it at any time, but this will not go into effect for one year from the date of this denunciation. If they are involved in a conflict at the time of this denunciation, it will not go into effect until after the conflict is over, even if it lasts longer than one year.


As I've said, this is a paraphrasing of the main points of the document, and does not include every minute nuance that is included in the original. If you'd like to read the complete original document, you can point your browser to http://www.asociety.com/geneva1.html and do so there. Any quotations referenced above were extracted from that document.

Over 150 countries have signed this draft of the Geneva Convention. In 1977, a fifth draft of the Geneva Convention was penned in response to the increasing number of insurrections and guerrilla wars taking place around the world. This extended the protection of the Geneva Convention to all participants in these wars, which they previously did not enjoy because of the stipulation in Chapter 2 which requires them to operate openly, have a fixed leadership structure, and behave "in accordance with the laws and customs of war".

This last Geneva Convention is somewhat more controversial, and only about half of the countries who signed the 1949 version have also signed the newer one. The United States and Great Britain are two notable abstainers from the latest draft. The central problem is that, guerrilla warfare aside, this new description could conceivably be applied to terrorist groups as well, who might then be able to use the tenets of the Convention to their advantage.

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