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What is the Geneva Convention?

Note: This article was first published in 2002.

The Geneva Convention often written and spoken of in contemporary news is actually the fourth Geneva Convention ratified in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II. The original Convention grew out concern for wounded soldiers in the late 19th century and has come to encompass the protection of prisoners of war, civilians and civilian non-combatants including reporters, photographers, and religious and medical personnel.

The history of the Conventions is closely linked to the emergency aid organization the Red Cross, one of whose founders, Henri Dunant, helped form the original Convention in 1864 after witnessing the carnage of the Battle of Solferino (1859) during the War of the Italian Unification, one of the bloodiest battles of the century. The 1864 Convention calls for the protection of all medical facilities, their personnel and any civilians aiding the wounded. It also gives the Red Cross international recognition as a neutral medical group.

The 1864 Convention was signed by twelve nations. The United States signed the treaty in 1882 by President Chester Arthur and was ratified by Congress; the U.S. was the thirty-second nation to sign the agreement.

The second Convention extended protection to wounded combatants at sea and shipwreck victims. A third Convention was convened to deal with the protection of prisoners of war in 1929. The fourth Geneva Convention, signed in 1949, reaffirmed the principles of the first three agreements and included in addition a section covering the protection of civilians during wartime.

The 1949 Convention is a lengthy document with over a hundred articles. The Convention outlaws the taking of hostages, the mutilation and degradation of POW's, torture, executions, and discrimination based on race, sex, religion, nationality or political affiliations.

Additional protocols have been issued including two in 1977 extending the 1949 articles to cover guerrilla combatants and to soldiers in wars of"self-determination." The United States signed the 1977 Protocols, but Congress refused to ratify them.

Recent interest in the Geneva Convention has been sparked by the treatment of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners of war held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Initially, President Bush determined that the Geneva Convention did not apply to the prisoners there. In early February in response to world pressure, he reversed administration policy, determining that the Convention does cover the Taliban prisoners since Afghanistan is a signatory to the agreement. He specifically exempted from coverage the prisoners identified as members of Al Qaeda. None of the people held at Guantanamo are considered prisoners of war, however. Instead, they have been designated"unlawful combatants." The administration contends that they did not conduct themselves in accordance with the commonly accepted rules of war.