The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols I and II of 1977

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their 1977 Additional Protocols constitute the heart of international humanitarian law. Adopted in reaction to the horror of World War II, they clarify and codify the many rules of the laws of armed conflict that had been established in earlier treaties. These Conventions have reached near-universal ratification. In 1977, two Additional Protocols were adopted to provide additional protection for victims of armed conflict. These Protocols are optional; nevertheless, nearly three-quarters of the countries of the world have ratified them.

An artificial distinction is often made between two sectors of humanitarian law: the rules regulating warfare (Hague Conventions 1899 and 1907) and those providing for relief activities in times of conflict (Geneva Conventions).

In fact, the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols do more than simply codify the rules for the assistance and protection of civilians. They establish the right of relief, as well as the rules of conduct during hostilities, since they regulate certain methods of warfare and establish the responsibilities of the parties to the conflict. ▸ Hague ConventionsInternational humanitarian lawMethods (and means) of warfare

The Geneva Conventions hence simultaneously codify the laws of war and the rules governing relief. The Conventions proceed by category, each one establishing the rules of relief in situations of conflict for a specific category of persons.

The first three Conventions set the rules for the treatment of combatants who are wounded, shipwrecked, or prisoners of war in situations of international armed conflict. Only the fourth Convention establishes regulations of the methods of war and provisions for the protection of the civilian population, in times of international armed conflict.

The Four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949

  • Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field (GCI)
  • Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick, and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea (GCII)
  • Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (GCIII)
  • Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War (GCIV)

One hundred ninety-sixStates are party to the four Geneva Conventions.

The 1977 Additional Protocols

  • Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (API)

One hundred seventy-fourStates are party to Additional Protocol I.

  • Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-international Armed Conflicts (APII)

One hundred sixty-eight States are party to Additional Protocol II.

The two Additional Protocols strengthen the protection of victims of conflicts. Additional Protocol I reinforces the Fourth Geneva Convention to the benefit of victims of international armed conflicts.

Additional Protocol II completes fundamental guarantees contained in Article 3, common to all four Geneva Conventions (known as Common Article 3), relating to the protection of victims of non-international armed conflicts. ▸ Fundamental guarantees .

The specific contents of these Conventions and Protocols are introduced under the entry on ▸ International humanitarian law .

Even though international humanitarian law is based on conventions, today it has acquired a customary character. Therefore, its norms bind even States that have not ratified the Conventions.

Fundamental guaranteesInternational armed conflictInternational humanitarian lawNon-international armed conflict

For Additional Information: ICRC. Basic Rules of the Geneva Conventions and Their Additional Protocols . 2nd ed. Geneva: ICRC, 1988. Available at Custo_Final.4&View=defaultBody2.

Kosirnik, Rene. “The 1977 Protocols: A Landmark in the Development of International Humanitarian Law.” International Review of the Red Cross 320 (1997): 483–505.

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