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Home > International Journalism > Reference Guide to the Geneva Conventions > Introduction

Reference Guide to the Geneva Conventions

Customary Laws
International Rules About Soldiers
International Rules About Civilians
International Rules About Journalists
Grievance Procedures
The Conventions

Geneva Conventions:
A Reference Guide

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

Author's Note
Order a Copy

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

The history of journalism and the history of laws of war are often intertwined. Ever since the Crimean War, reports from the front have affected national and international policy.

Most recently, media reports of widespread human rights abuses have contributed greatly to the decision to establish the War Crimes Tribunal on Former Yugoslavia, and to the decisions to intervene in Kosovo and East Timor.

Often, it is the journalists who are in the unique position of being able to combine reports from combatants and civilians, non-governmental organizations and government officials into a coherent and compelling account and to disseminate that account to a large audience.

It is each journalist's responsibility to make that account as complete and as accurate as possible. To this end, the Press Freedom Network of the Society of Professional Journalists presents this guide to the Geneva Conventions.

Please note, however, that the six documents included and indexed here are not the final word on international law of war. A number of international treaties have not been included in this reference, including treaties restricting the spread of chemical and biological weapons and land mines, as well as international human rights agreements.

A country may also be a party to regional agreements that bear on the conduct of war and on human rights. Finally, each country also has a complex set of internal laws and procedures that may have bearing on these same issues.

For up-to-date information about international treaties, consult one of the web sites listed at the end of this introduction. For information about specific local laws and agreements, the best references as of this writing are local experts such as lawmakers, diplomats and legal scholars.

Another important caveat is that the Geneva Conventions, like any other sets of laws, are subject to interpretation. For example, during the Vietnam War, the United States military conducted area bombardments, used Agent Orange to defoliate forests, and declared some areas "free fire zones." The question of whether these actions were in violation of the Geneva Conventions is still unresolved.

Interpretations also change over time. During World War II, war correspondents often accompanied the armed services and wore military uniforms and the earlier Conventions echoed that fact. However, by the time of the Vietnam War, journalists were already separating themselves from the armies they reported on, a change which was reflected in the Additional Protocols.


Customary Laws
The following are rules applicable in all conflicts, regardless of whether the countries in question are signatories of the Geneva Conventions Π and regardless of whether the warring party in question is recognized as an independent state.

Warring parties must obey the rules spelled out in the common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which requires that prisoners of war and wounded combatants be protected from murder; discrimination based on race, religion, sex, and similar criteria; mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; humiliating and degrading treatment; and sentencing or execution without a fair trial.

In addition, the following are forbidden towards any persons in an area of armed conflict:

— Torture, mutilation, rape, slavery and arbitrary killing
— Genocide
— Crimes against humanity – which include forced disapparance and deprivation of humanitarian aid
— War crimes – which include apartheid, biological experiments, hostage tacking, attacks on cultural objects, and depriving people of the right to a fair trial.

For a more complete explanation of any of the above terms, please see the alphabetical reference, which follows this introductory material.


International Rules About Soldiers
The Geneva Conventions and supplementary protocols make a distinction between combatants and civilians. The two groups must be treated differently by the warring sides and, therefore, combatants must be clearly distinguishable from civilians. Although this obligation benefits civilians by making it easier for the warring sides to avoid targeting non-combatants, soldiers also benefit because they become immune from prosecution for acts of war.

For example, a civilian who shoots a soldier may be liable for murder while a soldier who shoots an enemy soldier and is captured may not be punished.

In order for the distinction between combatants and civilians to be clear, combatants must wear uniforms and carry their weapons openly during military operations and during preparation for them.

The exceptions are medical and religious personnel, who are considered non-combatants even though they may wear uniforms. Medical personnel may also carry small arms to use in self-defense if illegally attacked.

The other exception are mercenaries, who are specifically excluded from protections. Mercenaries are defined as soldiers who are not nationals of any of the parties to the conflict and are paid more than the local soldiers.

Combatants who deliberately violate the rules about maintaining a clear separation between combatant and noncombatant groups — and thus endanger the civilian population — are no longer protected by the Geneva Convention.

Combatants who do fall within the guidelines of the Geneva Conventions enjoy the following protections:

— Prisoners of war must be treated humanely. Specifically, prisoners must not be subject to torture or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind. They must also be protected against violence, intimidation, insults and public curiosity. The public display of POWs is also prohibited.
— When questioned — in the prisoner's native language — prisoners of war must only give their names, ranks, birth dates and serial numbers. Prisoners who refuse to answer may not be threatened or mistreated.
— Prisoners of war must be immediately evacuated away from a combat zone and must not be unnecessarily exposed to danger. They may not be used as human shields.
— Finally, and most importantly, prisoners of war may not be punished for the acts they committed during the fighting unless the opposing side would have punished its own soldiers for those acts as well.


International Rules About Civilians
Both the fourth Geneval Convention and the two Additional Protocols extend protections to civilians during war time.

— Civilians are not to be subject to attack. This includes direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks against areas in which civilians are present.
— There is to be no destruction of property unless justified by military necessity.
— Individuals or groups must not be deported, regardless of motive.
— Civilians must not be used as hostages.
— Civilians must not be subject to outrages upon personal dignity.
— Civilians must not be tortured, raped or enslaved.
— Civilians must not be subject to collective punishment and reprisals.
— Civilians must not receive differential treatment based on race, religion, nationality, or political allegiance.
— Warring parties must not use or develop biological or chemical weapons and must not allow children under 15 to participate in hostilities or to be recruited into the armed forces.


International Rules About Journalists
Customs have changed since the 1949 conventions were signed. In the first half of this century, journalists were considered civilian members of military, often wore uniforms, and became prisoners of war when captured.

The first, second and third Geneva Conventions extend to war correspondents all the protections due to combatants. They were not to be treated as spies and, even though their notebooks and film could be confiscated, they did not have to respond to interrogation. If they were sick or wounded, they must receive medical treatment and, if they were captured, they must be treated humanely.

This changed with the adoption of the 1977 Protocols, which explicitly recognized journalists to be civilians and due to all the civilian protections.

Now, journalists must not be deliberately targeted, detained, or otherwise mistreated any more than any other civilian.
This means that journalists now have an obligation to differentiate themselves from combatants by not wearing uniforms or openly carrying firearms.


Grievance Procedures
If a person or a group of people feels that their rights have been violated, there are a number of agencies and organization to whom they may turn for help.

Many of these agencies and organizations collect case histories and other documentation of war crimes and human rights abuses for the purposes of distributing them to the media. A few organizations will even help journalists find sources and transportation. Some representatives of these organizations speak on the record, others only for background information.

When dealing with such an organization, the journalist should respect the organization's official policies when it comes to press contacts while at the same time recognizing that some may also provide additiona information provided that some requirements are met. These requirements may include not attributing the information to that organization, finding a second source for the information or using the information in such a way that it does not expose the organization's employees or sources to any danger. These are all reasonable requests and a reporter should abide by these restrictions in order not to jeopardize the agencies' humanitarian mission or future relationships with journalists. These agencies and organizations include, but are not limited to:

— The International Committee of the Red Cross
— The United Nations, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Criminal Court.
Committee on the Rights of the Child
War Crimes Tribunal on Former Yugoslavia
International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda
Inter-American Court on Human Rights
Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch
Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders)
— Local human rights groups, military commanders, elected officials

Copyright © 2003 Maria Trombly. All rights reserved.

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