The ICRC since 1945: the Geneva Conventions of 1949


Background to the major revision and expansion of the Geneva Conventions after World War II; overview of some of their most important innovations.

The second world war was drawing painfully to a close when, in February 1945, the ICRC announced its intention to push for a revision of the Geneva Conventions, to make up for some of the shortcomings in the existing treaties.

The ICRC had three main objectives: to extend the protection of the Conventions to civilians, to protect the victims of civil wars, and to improve the enforcement of the Conventions.

The ICRC's aims reflected not only its concerns over the disastrous situation faced by civilians in the second world war, but also its experiences in the various conflicts that had taken place since the first world war.

It had already tried to persuade states to adopt protective laws for civilians in 1929, when the Conventions were last revised, but to no avail. A diplomatic conference – at which all governments were to be asked to consider a new treaty – was finally scheduled for 1940, but had to be abandoned because of the outbreak of war.

 Lack of protection for civilians  

In September 1939, as the conflict started, the ICRC proposed that belligerents observe a set of proposed rules known as the " Tokyo Draft " (adopted at the XVth International Conference of the Red Cross in the Japanese capital), but this came to nothing. The only concession was a limited agreement that offered interned enemy civilians similar protection to that given to prisoners of war.

The result was the lack of any solid basis for the ICRC's efforts to help civilians in occupied territories and save them from deportation and dea th.

The ICRC was not assured of success in its post-war venture. As after the first world war, it found its position called into question by certain national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies; some proposed either making the Committee's membership international (it had always been made up of Swiss citizens), or having its tasks taken over by their federation, the League. Some even called for its outright abolition.

At the same time, it faced criticism from the Soviet Union for failing to prevent the deaths of Soviet POWs held by the Germans, while some western countries were critical of the ICRC's protection work for German prisoners who remained in captivity after the war had ended.

 Towards a new order  

The general situation prevailing was paradoxical: with the creation of the United Nations and the codification of human rights, greater efforts than ever were being made to establish a new world order. Yet the world was entering a dangerous era of political confrontation between two major superpowers and their followers, with ever more powerful nuclear weapons being tested.

Meanwhile, conflicts continued to claim the ICRC's attention: in Asia, on the Indian sub-continent, in the Middle East…

The challenge facing the ICRC was to ensure the relevance of the Geneva Conventions, based on solid experience. A team of lawyers was employed at its HQ, some of them involved in writing a detailed report on its work during the war, others on drafting the new treaty and updating the existing ones.

To lay the groundwork, the ICRC called meetings of experts, from both national societies and governments, in 1946 and 1947. The basis of the revised conventions was agreed on at the XVIIth International Red Cross Conference that took place in Stockholm in 1948; the Swiss government – depositary state of the Geneva Conventions – formally convened the diplomatic conference for the following year.

The conference opened at Geneva's Palais du Conseil général on 21 April 1949, attended by 64 countries, with the ICRC present as an expert. Just under four months later, on 12 August, the work came to a close with the adoption of four Conventions covering the following categories:

I. wounded and sick military personnel on the battlefield

II. wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel in war at sea

III. prisoners of war

IV. civilians

 Expanding the frontiers of humanitarian law  

Taken as a whole, the four Conventions of 12 August 1949 considerably expanded the frontiers of humanitarian law. While the first three served to update existing treaties, the fourth broke entirely new ground and made detailed provision for the treatment due to civilians under the control of an enemy power.

The major novelty was article 3 common to all four Conventions, which for the first time introduced the principles of the Geneva Conventions into the domain of non-international conflicts (see box).


A major breakthrough: Common Article 3 

  Common Article 3 of 1949 has been called "a Convention within a Convention". Its singular importance is to have broken through the obstacle posed by considerations of national sovereignty to impose a legal framework on internal conflicts.  
In essence it requires that people who do not, or who no longer, take part in hostilities be treated humanely, without discrimination; it prohibits the use of violence against them, as well as hostage-taking, humiliating and degrading treatment and sentencing without due process.  
It allows the ICRC to offer its services for the good of the victims and urges belligerents to agree on respecting other provisions of the Geneva Conventions.    

Other important new features included improved supervisory mechanisms, to ensure greater respect for the Conventions; the introduction of hospital and safety zones, for wounded and sick combatants and non-combatants; the creation of neutralized zones for civilians; the broadening of the definition of prisoner of war.

The all-new fourth Convention, with 159 articles, was the longest of the four treaties. It introduced provisions for the general protection of civilians against some consequences of war, on the status and treatment of protected persons, whether they be foreigners on a belligerent's territory or the population of an occupied territory, interned or at liberty. Articles 142 onwards lay down rules to ensure observance of the Convention and measures to prevent – or put a stop to – violations.


 ICRC's right of initiative  

The exercise reinforced the ICRC's role. New provisions recognized its activities – in visiting prisoners and internees, for example – and confirmed its right, on humanitarian grounds, to propose additional measures aimed at ensuring protection and assistance for victims of conflict (known as its " right of initiative " ).

This in turn strengthened the ICRC's position within the international movement, giving it an undisputed legal personality and reinforced moral authority. 

While the Conventions of 1949 constituted an undeniable step forward for humanitarian protection, new challenges were to arise in the following two decades – guerrilla warfare and anti-colonial struggles – that would require the law to be further updated. This would come about with the adoption, in 1977, of the two Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions.

 More on the   Geneva Conventions  For greater detail on the background to the 1949 Conventions, and their innovations, read the article by   Catherine Rey-SchyrrFrançois Bugnion , and the article on the ICRC in the "Cold War" by  , both in the International Review of the Red Cross.