What Are the Geneva Conventions?

The Geneva Conventions Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War

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The Geneva Conventions are an international agreement—a series of treaties that the military of numerous countries must abide by in times of war. They were first implemented by the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, which later became the International Committee for the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

The Geneva Conventions were intended to protect soldiers who were no longer engaged in combat. This included the sick and wounded, shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea and prisoners of war, and certain auxiliary civilians.

What Is the Geneva Convention? 

The Convention is actually a series of treaties and agreements. Held in Geneva, the 1949 conventions and two protocols added in 1977 form the basis for international humanitarian law in times of war. Two subsequent Geneva Conventions in 1951 and 1967 protected refugees. 

The 1949 Geneva Conventions followed three others that took place in 1864, 1906, and 1929. The 1949 Conventions updated the tenets, rules, and agreements reached in the first three conventions. 

There were actually four Conventions in 1949, and the first provided the fourth update to the original version of the agreement. It extended protections to not only the sick and wounded but to clergy and medical personnel as well. 

The second 1949 Geneva Convention offered protection to military personnel serving at sea during wartime, including those confined on hospital ships. It adapted provisions achieved in the Hague Convention of 1906.

The third 1949 Convention applied to prisoners of war and replaced 1929's Prisoners of War Convention. Most notably, it set terms for the locations of places of captivity and standards that must be maintained there. 

The fourth Convention further extended protection to civilians, including those in occupied territories.

In total, 196 "states parties" or countries have signed and ratified the 1949 Conventions over the years, including many that did not participate or sign until decades later. These include Angola, Bangladesh, and Iran. 

The Treatment of Prisoners of War (Article 60)

Article 60 of the Geneva Convention is one of the more well-known provisions, and it pertains to payment for prisoners of war. It reads in part: 

"The Detaining Power shall grant all prisoners of war a monthly advance of pay, the amount of which shall be fixed by conversion, into the currency of the said Power, of the following amounts:
Category I: Prisoners ranking below sergeant: eight Swiss francs.
Category II: Sergeants and other non-commissioned officers, or prisoners of equivalent rank: twelve Swiss francs.
Category III: Warrant officers and commissioned officers below the rank of major or prisoners of equivalent rank: fifty Swiss francs.
Category IV: Majors, lieutenant-colonels, colonels or prisoners of equivalent rank: sixty Swiss francs.
Category V: General officers or prisoners of equivalent rank: seventy-five Swiss francs.
However, the Parties to the conflict concerned may by special agreement modify the amount of advances of pay due to prisoners of the preceding categories.
Furthermore, if the amounts indicated in the first paragraph above would be unduly high compared with the pay of the Detaining Power's armed forces or would, for any reason, seriously embarrass the Detaining Power, then, pending the conclusion of a special agreement with the Power on which the prisoners depend to vary the amounts indicated above, the Detaining Power:
(a) Shall continue to credit the accounts of the prisoners with the amounts indicated in the first paragraph above;
(b) May temporarily limit the amount made available from these advances of pay to prisoners of war for their own use, to sums which are reasonable, but which, for Category I, shall never be inferior to the amount that the Detaining Power gives to the members of its own armed forces.
The reasons for any limitations will be given without delay to the Protecting Power."

Are the Geneva Conventions Still Followed Today?

While the treaties put in place by the Geneva Conventions are still in effect today, some discussion has taken place in recent years about updating them again. The most daunting question is whether the humanitarian rights put into effect by the Geneva Conventions for prisoners of war should pertain to terrorists or suspected terrorists. 

World leaders have questioned whether these rules, written after World War II and updated after the Vietnam War, apply to the conflicts of today, particularly after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. If so, how can they be enforced more effectively? Should they be revised to address new threats, such as acts of terrorism?

The case of Hamdi v. Rumsfield threw a spotlight on this issue in 2004 when Hamdi, a U.S. citizen, was accused of joining Taliban forces on U.S. soil. As such, this made him an enemy combatant and placed him outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled otherwise, basing its decision on a congressional resolution that had been in effect since 2001 allowing the president to use all necessary and appropriate forces against any country that participated in the 9/11 attacks.


Furthermore, the Conventions obligate all states parties to the agreement—including Afghanistan—to offer universal jurisdiction and support of its protections. They must enforce them on their own soil. It remains to be seen whether further updates will be reached to accommodate these changing times.