ICRC databases on international humanitarian law
Treaties and Documents
1949 Conventions and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries
Historical Treaties and Documents
Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
. -- LANGUAGES
PARAGRAPH 1. -- AUTHENTIC TEXTS
Throughout the Diplomatic Conference of 1949, and earlier during the preparatory work, two versions of the same Convention were drawn up simultaneously, French and English both being recognized, on an equal footing, as working languages. The 1929 Conventions, on the other hand, had been drawn up in French only, as French was still the leading diplomatic language at that time.
Paragraph 1 lays down that both texts are equally authentic -- in other words, that each carries the same weight and is as valid as the other. It was to the English version just as much as to the [p.608] French that the Plenipotentiaries appended their signatures in 1949 In the same way, ratifications and accessions will be valid for the two versions. States which are party to the Convention are thus bound by one as much as by the other.
The solution thus adopted conforms to the most recent inter national practice. A consequence will be that the interpretation of the Convention will be made easier, as the two texts can be compared and one will throw light on the other, but that there will be an awkward problem to solve when the two texts differ.
It is generally difficult to give exact expression to the same idea in different languages. Moreover, owing to force of circumstances, the Diplomatic Conference was unable to ensure that the two versions corresponded exactly. To overcome the difficulty the International Committee of the Red Cross had suggested, in its draft proposals, that where there was doubt as to the interpretation of a provision, the French version should be taken as the correct one. The suggestion was not adopted, however, by the Diplomatic Conference.
Where divergencies exist, those responsible for applying the Convention will have to find out what is known in municipal law as the intention of the legislator; in the case in point, it will be the joint will of the parties represented at the Conference. The method adopted will therefore have to be that of legal interpretation with the help of the Final Record of the Conference and the preliminary texts (1).
PARAGRAPH 2. -- OFFICIAL TRANSLATIONS
After drawing up the two authentic texts itself, the Diplomatic Conference entrusted the preparation of official translations into Russian and Spanish to the Swiss Federal Council (2). This too is an innovation so far as the Geneva Conventions are concerned, and has the particular advantage of avoiding the production of a variety of different versions in the numerous Spanish-speaking countries.
The Russian and Spanish versions are official in that the body which prepared them was specified in the Convention itself, but, unlike the French and English, they are not authentic, and the French and English versions would be regarded as correct in the event of any divergencies.
Notes: (1) [(1) p.608] This procedure is generally followed in
countries which, like Switzerland, promulgate their
national laws in several languages, each version being
(2) [(2) p.608] There are also translations into German and
Italian made by the Swiss Federal Council, not at the
request of the Diplomatic Conference, but under an
obligation of Swiss law;