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Henry Dunant

Henry Dunant


Geneva conventions 

 The history of humanitarian law
  The essential rules of international humanitarian law
  Geneva Conventions
  The Additional Protocols
  ICRC's relation with other international humanitarian law

International Humanitarian Law

Until the middle of the 19th century all of the treaties concerning war victims' protection were circumstantial and binding only for the signing parties. These agreements were purely military-designed, based on strictly binding mutual obligations; and they were in force only during specific armed conflict.

The 1864 Geneva Convention laid the foundations for the contemporary humanitarian law. It was in a whole characterized by:

  • standing written rules of universal scope to protect the victims of conflicts;
  • its multilateral nature, open to all States; the obligation to extend care without discrimination to wounded and sick military personnel;
  • respect for and marking of medical personnel, transports and equipment using an emblem (red cross on a white background).

The creation of the modern humanitarian law was strongly tied with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, changing the matter of things. It was a big step towards humanity. Since then countries are bound by multilateral treaty, which is in force forever and on every occasion.

The history of humanitarian law

It all began in June 1859, when a merchant named Henry Dunant was traveling through the war-ravaged plain of Normandia, north of Italia, after the battle of Solferino. Seeing thousands of wounded soldiers left dying in the mercy of fate, he appealed to the local inhabitants to come and help, insisting that combatants from both sides should be taken care of. There and then it crossed the Dunant's mind an idea about the creation of the Red Cross;. so he decided to tell the world about experienced horrors of war and wrote a book "A memory of Solferino", let it be mentioned here that with this work he initiated the news reports' epoch. In his book, published in 1862, he made two solemn appeals; firstly, for relief societies to be formed in the peacetime with nurses who would be ready to care for the wounded in wartime. Secondly, for these volunteers, who would be called upon to assist the military medical services, to be recognized and protected through an international agreement. These ideas soon materialized in the creation of the "International Committee for Relief to the Wounded", which later became the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In response to an invitation from the International Committee, representatives from sixteen countries and four philanthropic institutions gathered at an International Conference in Geneva in 1863. This event marked the founding of the Red Cross as an institution. But this was only the first step. Henry Dunant and the other members of the Committee wanted official and international recognition of the Red Cross and its ideals. They wanted a Convention to be adopted which would ensure the protection of medical services on the battlefield.

To this end the Swiss government agreed to convene a Diplomatic Conference which was held in Geneva in 1864. Representatives of twelve governments took part and adopted a treaty prepared by the International Committee and entitled the "Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field". This agreement, with its ten articles, was the first treaty of international humanitarian law. Subsequently, further conferences were held, extending the basic law to other categories of victims, such as prisoners of war. In 1899 in the Hague it was signed the next Convention, adjusting Geneva Convention's principles to the war-action at sea. In 1906, the ten articles of the First Convention were improved and complemented. And in 1907 under the terms of this Convention,. In the Hague it were determined all combatants' categories who had the war-prisoner's status when detained as well as the right for the adequate treatment during their captivity. In 1929, these Conventions were developed further and affirmed one more time.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, a Diplomatic Conference deliberated for four months before adopting the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which for the first time included provisions for the protection of civilians in wartime. In 1977, the Conventions were supplemented by two Additional Protocols. 

The First Geneva Convention, signed in 1864, was the first treaty of international humanitarian law. In 1899 in the Hague it was signed the next convention, applying the Geneva convention to war action at sea.

And in 1907 The Hague Convention determined combatants' categories. In 1929 these conventions were developed further and expanded one more time. In 1949 during the international conference it was adopted Geneva convention "Civil persons' protection during the war-time" as well transcribed three previous adapted conventions and submitted their texts. The Geneva convention from 1949 and additional Protocols in toto nearly 600 paragraphs is law achievement with a historical importance.


The essential rules of international humanitarian law

Persons who do not or can no longer take part in the hostilities are entitled to respect for their life and for their physical and mental integrity. Such persons must in all circumstances be protected and treated with humanity, without any unfavorable distinction whatever.

It is forbidden to kill or wound an adversary who surrenders or who can no longer take part in the fighting.

The wounded and sick must be collected and cared for by the party to the conflict which has them in its power. Medical personnel and medical establishments, transports and equipment must be spared. The red cross or red crescent on a white background is the sign protecting such persons and objects and must be respected.

Captured combatants and civilians who find themselves under the authority of the adverse party are entitled to respect for their life, their dignity, their personal rights and their political, religious and other convictions. They must be protected against all acts of violence or reprisal. They are entitled to exchange news with their families and receive aid.

Everyone must enjoy basic judicial guarantees and no one may be held responsible for an act he has not committed. No one may be subjected to physical or mental torture or to cruel or degrading corporal punishment or other treatment.

Neither the parties to the conflict nor members of their armed forces have an unlimited rights to choose methods and means of warfare. It is forbidden to use weapons or methods of warfare that are likely to cause unnecessary losses or excessive suffering.

The parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and civilian property. Neither the civilian population as whole nor individual civilians may be attacked. Attacks may be made solely against military objectives.

Geneva Conventions

The basic principles of Geneva conventions are reposing on the respect of the human being and are respecting its dignity.

Individuals, who do not take direct part in hostilities as well as individuals, can not take part in these actions due illness, wound, captivity or other reasons, are entitled to be respected and protected against conflicting sides' military operations' consequences without any unfavorable distinction whatever.

Additional protocols are extending action field, concerning it to any individual, involved in a military conflict. Moreover, these protocols oblige warring sides and combatants not to attack civilians and civil objects as well oblige to guarantee the providing of military operations in compliance with the generally accepted humanitarian law

Geneva conventions, accepted on August the 12th, 1949

The protection provided by the Conventions applies to the following categories of persons:

The First Convention - wounded and sick members of the armed forces in the field;
The Second Convention - wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of the armed forces at sea as well as shipwreck victims;
The Third Convention - prisoners of the war;
The Fourth Convention - civilians in times of war.

The Additional Protocols

The ICRC, being the initiator and the guardian of international humanitarian law, is responsible for its development in order to be in step with warfare changes. The law are formed in a consecutive stages, as well providing the revision of existing documents whenever the Committee considers it as a necessary measure. Committee's legal experts organize and participate in meetings and conferences aimed at improving the protection of war victims. Banning the use of certain weapons, such as anti-personnel landmines and blinding weapons, is among the issues currently being examined.

In the 1965 ICRC decided that it was coming up to this measure. Even if the Geneva Conventions dated 1949 have not lost their importance and significance, they were incomplete in the terms of the necessity to protect the victims of modern military conflicts. For that reason ICRC began research the possibilities to fill these gaps in existing law, providing them with the additive protocols. In February, 1974, Swiss government convened a diplomatic conference in order to discuss the draft protocols. Invited were 115 countries who signed Geneva conventions or/and the member states of United Nations Organization. In this conference it took part observers representing 14 national liberation organizations as well as 35 intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations; 102 official representatives adopted 102 paragraphs of the First protocol concerning protection of the victims of international military conflicts, as well as 28 paragraphs of the Second protocol concerning the protection of the victims of local conflicts. In June the 10th, 1977, there was the official ceremony of the signing of these Protocols, but in general these activities had the ceremonial character. The two Additional Protocols of 1977 supplement the Conventions which aim to limit the use of violence and protect the civilian population by strengthening the rules governing the conduct of hostilities.

additional protocols

ICRC's relation with other international humanitarian law.


As a neutral and private organization, whose all participants are Swiss citizens, as well as an initiator of the acceptance of the Geneva Convention, ICRC is taking responsibility for the adoption of these conventions. Moreover, in account of its neutrality this Committee is based in a convenient place to offer its assistance to the victims of the warring-sides military conflicts.

In the first place, ICRC is a real helper to the wounded and sick military personnel, as well as shipwreck victims and the prisoners of war, whose condition it seeks to improve from the moment of their capturing to their release.

For that purpose it

  • delegates its representatives to the internment camps, concentration camps or/and labor camps where the imprisoned people are kept;
  • representatives evaluate these prisoners' lodging and boarding conditions as well as attitude against them;

if necessary, representatives make an appeal to prisoner-keeping country to reach an preferable improvements.

ICRC is acting in favor of the civil persons in the territory of enemy and in the occupied regions. In the case of local military conflicts the Committee acts as a neutral mediator (see para 3 common to all four Geneva conventions from 1949).

Another sphere of the action of the ICRC is providing the searching of the missing persons as well as an exchange of information between the family members divided by military conflicts. The central searching institution of the ICRC, based in Geneva, too, has recently data-based the amount of 55 million cards in which there are summarized 30 millions of specific cases in the hundred years' period.

Eventually, the ICRC is an organization, to which can refer those civilians who in the case of war are starving. It's not a rare situation when ICRC is the one and only institution who can overstep the barbed wires, blockade, as well can make free movements in the occupied territories providing food, medicine and clothes, blankets etc. to those are in need.

Depending on the scale of help needed, the ICRC turns for help to the National committees of the ICRC, the League of the Red Cross organizations, to the governments not included in war-conflict as well as non-governmental institutions.


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