Geneva Conventions

The four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the two Additional Protocols of 1977 and the Additional Protocol of 2005 form the core of international humanitarian law.  They protect persons who are not, or no longer, participating in hostilities.

Content of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols

Persons in the hands of the enemy are entitled at all times to respect for their life and for their physical and mental integrity.

  • Under the first and second Geneva Conventions of 1949, the belligerents must protect the sick, wounded and shipwrecked as well as medical personnel, ambulances and hospitals. All persons protected under these conventions must be given shelter and cared for by the party to the conflict that holds power over them.
  • The third Geneva Convention contains detailed rules on the treatment of prisoners of war.
  • The fourth Geneva Convention protects civilians in the hands of the enemy, whether in their own or in occupied territory.
  • The first Additional Protocol of 1977 supplements the rules applying to international armed conflicts contained in the four Geneva Conventions. It imposes restrictions on the conduct of hostilities; for example, it prohibits attacks against civilians and civilian objects and restricts the means and methods of warfare.
  • The second Additional Protocol of 1977 supplements Article 3 which is common to the four Geneva Conventions and is the sole provision applicable to non-international armed conflicts.
  • The third Additional Protocol provides for an additional emblem in the form of a red crystal.  Since 1 January 2007, it has been possible to use this emblem as an alternative to the red cross or red crescent – the emblems recognised by the Geneva Conventions for identifying persons and objects entitled to special protection.

Wide recognition

The four Geneva Conventions have been universally ratified. Their rules and those of the Additional Protocols of 1977 have now largely been incorporated into international customary law, binding on all states and all parties to conflicts.

Historical background

It was Henry Dunant of Geneva (1828–1910) who, having witnessed the carnage of the Battle of Solferino in 1859, initiated the first measures for the protection of persons in conflict situations. His humanitarian initiative ultimately led to the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In 1864, 1899, 1906, 1907 and 1929, international conferences in Geneva and The Hague adopted several conventions designed to protect the victims of war and regulate the means and methods of warfare. The Second World War demonstrated the need to further strengthen these provisions. An international conference in Geneva chaired by Federal Councillor Max Petitpierre drafted the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. They were supplemented by two Additional Protocols in 1977 and a third in 2005.