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Home > International Journalism > Reference Guide to the Geneva Conventions > A Brief History of the Laws of War

Reference Guide to the Geneva Conventions
A Brief History of the Laws of War

Geneva Conventions:
A Reference Guide

About the Guide
Alphabetical Index
Conventions Texts
     I | II | III | IV | PI | PII

Author's Note
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Image of original document of the first Geneva Convention from 1864 courtesy Kevin Quinn, Ohio, US; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution license

Attempts to put limits on wartime behavior have been around since the beginning of recorded history and there have been numerous attempts to codify the rules of appropriate military conduct.

In the sixth century BCE, Chinese warrior Sun Tzu suggested putting limits on the way that wars were conducted.

Around 200 BCE, the notion of war crimes as such appeared in the Hindu code of Manu.

In 1305, the Scottish national hero Sir William Wallace was tried for the wartime murder of civilians.

Hugo Grotius wrote "On the Law of War and Peace" in 1625, focusing on the humanitarian treatment of civilians.

In 1865, Confederate officer Henry Wirz was executed for murdering Federal prisoners of war at the Andersonville prisoner of war camp. He was only one of several people who were tried for similar offenses.

In fact, it's been the past century and a half that has really seen a qualitative jump in the degree to which constraints have been placed on warring parties, and only this century that an international body has been formed to police the nations of the world.

The first Geneva Convention was signed in 1864 to protect the sick and wounded in war time. This first Geneva Convention was inspired by Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross. Ever since then, the Red Cross has played an integral part in the drafting and enforcement of the Geneva Conventions.

These included the 1899 treaties, concerning asphyxiating gases and expanding bullets. In 1907, 13 separate treaties were signed, followed in 1925 by the Geneva Gas Protocol, which prohibited the use of poison gas and the practice of bacteriological warfare.

In 1929, two more Geneva Conventions dealt with the treatment of the wounded and prisoners of war. In 1949, four Geneva Conventions extended protections to those shipwrecked at sea and to civilians.

The Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property was signed in 1954, the United Nations Convention on Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Techniques followed in 1977, together with two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, extending their protections to civil wars.

There is no one "Geneva Convention." Like any other body of law, the laws of war have been assembled piecemeal, and are, in fact, still under construction.

It is impossible to produce a complete and up-to-date list of war crimes. Even today, weapon systems such as land mines are being debated at the highest levels of international policy.

What follows is a basic reference to the most common protections and prohibitions, as provided for in the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and the two 1977 protocols.

Copyright © 2003 Maria Trombly. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1996-2015 Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved. Legal

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