What Are the Geneva Conventions?

Geneva conventions address POWs and MIAs

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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? 

Held in Geneva, the 1949 conventions and two protocols added in 1977 form the basis for international humanitarian law in times of war. The provisions of two subsequent Geneva Conventions in 1951 and 1967 protect 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. 

Changes to the Geneva Conventions

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 September 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. Rumsfeld 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, the Department of Defense argued, 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.