The Geneva Conventions comprise four treaties, and three additional protocols, that establish the standards of international law for the humanitarian treatment of war. The singular term ''Geneva Convention'' usually denotes the agreements of 1949, negotiated in the aftermath of the Second World War (1939–45), which updated the terms of the first three treaties (1864, 1906, 1929), and added a fourth. The Geneva Conventions extensively defined the basic rights of wartime prisoners (civilians and military personnel); established protections for the wounded; and established protections for the civilians in and around a war-zone. The treaties of 1949 were ratified, in whole or with reservations, by 196 countries. Moreover, the Geneva Convention also defines the rights and protections afforded to non-combatants, yet, because the Geneva Conventions are about people in war, the articles do not address warfare proper—the use of weapons of war—which is the subject of the Hague Conventions (First Hague Conference, 1899; Second Hague Conference 1907), and the bio-chemical warfare Geneva Protocol (Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, 1925).
The Swiss businessman Henry Dunant visited wounded soldiers after the Battle of Solferino in 1859. He was shocked by the lack of facilities, personnel, and medical aid available to help these soldiers. As a result, he published his book, ''Memoir of the Solferino'', in 1862, on the horrors of war.〔 English version, full text online.〕 His wartime experiences inspired Dunant to propose:
* A permanent relief agency for humanitarian aid in times of war
* A government treaty recognizing the neutrality of the agency and allowing it to provide aid in a war zone
The former proposal led to the establishment of the Red Cross in Geneva. The latter led to the 1864 Geneva Convention, the first codified international treaty that covered the sick and wounded soldiers in the battlefield. For both of these accomplishments, Henry Dunant became corecipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.〔(The story of an idea ), film on the creation of the Red Cross, Red Crescent Movement and the Geneva Conventions〕
The ten articles of this first treaty were initially adopted on August 22, 1864 by twelve nations.〔 The original twelve original countries were Switzerland, Baden, Belgium, Denmark, France, Hesse, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Prussia, Spain, and Wurtemburg.〕 Clara Barton was instrumental in campaigning for the ratification of the 1864 Geneva Convention by the United States, which eventually ratified it in 1882.
The second treaty was first adopted in the ''Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armies at Sea'', concluded on July 6, 1906 and specifically addressed members of the Armed Forces at sea.〔(Text of the 1906 convention (French) )〕 It was continued in the ''Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War'', concluded on July 27, 1929 and entered into effect on June 19, 1931.〔Text in ''League of Nations Treaty Series'', vol. 118, pp. 304–341.〕 Inspired by the wave of humanitarian and pacifistic enthusiasm following World War II and the outrage towards the war crimes disclosed by the Nuremberg Trials, a series of conferences were held in 1949 reaffirming, expanding and updating the prior three Geneva Conventions and adding a new elaborate ''Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War''.
Despite the length of these documents, they were found over time to be incomplete. In fact, the very nature of armed conflicts had changed with the beginning of the Cold War era, leading many to believe that the 1949 Geneva Conventions were addressing a largely extinct reality: on the one hand, most armed conflicts had become internal, or civil wars, while on the other, most wars had become increasingly asymmetric. Moreover, modern armed conflicts were inflicting an increasingly higher toll on civilians, which brought the need to provide civilian persons and objects with tangible protections in time of combat, thus bringing a much needed update to the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. In light of these developments, two Protocols were adopted in 1977 that extended the terms of the 1949 Conventions with additional protections. In 2005, a third brief Protocol was added establishing an additional protective sign for medical services, the Red Crystal, as an alternative to the ubiquitous Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, for those countries that find them objectionable.
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