Human rights in time of war and conflict

The Geneva Conventions

The Geneva Conventions set standards in international law for humanitarian treatment of wounded soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians during war and conflict and military occupation. They also recognize the human rights of journalists. The Geneva Conventions comprise four treaties and three additional protocols, which together make up international humanitarian law. The first three treaties were adopted between 1864 and 1931. They deal with the humane treatment of wounded and sick soldiers, sailors and prisoners of war. The fourth treaty was drafted after the Second World War. It confirms and expands the three previous treaties and includes the protection of civilians. In 1977 two additional protocols were adopted, increasing protections and in 2005, a third protocol was added establishing an additional protective sign for medical services. The four conventions and their protocols are legally binding. Members of the armed forces who violate the rights in the conventions can be found guilty of war crimes.

ORIGINS OF THE GENEVA CONVENTION

The Geneva Conventions originated with a Swiss businessman, Jean Henri Dunant, who saw the carnage caused by the Battle of Solferino in 1859. The battle, in which the French and Sardinian armies fought the Austrians, took place just outside the town of Solferino in northern Italy and involved over 300,000 soldiers. It was won by the French and Sardinians. When the gunfire stopped, some 38,000 people lay dead or wounded on the battlefield. Doctors had been captured during the battle and no one seemed to be helping wounded soldiers. Horrified at the suffering, Dunant organized local townspeople and villagers to help the soldiers, no matter which side they had fought on.

He returned to Geneva and wrote a book about what he had seen. He also led a successful advocacy campaign for establishment of a permanent body to care for those wounded in war, and for establishment of a treaty to guarantee neutrality of the body.

His ideas led to the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863 and later, to the creation of the first Geneva Convention. Dunant received the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. He died in 1910.

Summary of the main articles

The Fourth Geneva Convention applies to the protection of civilians, including journalists.

Fourth Convention, Article 3

Article 3, which is common to all four conventions, covers the rights of civilians in enemy or occupied territory in non-international conflict. It states that all civilians must be treated humanely, without discrimination as to “race, colour, religion, faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.” It outlaws the following acts against civilians:

  • Any form of violence, including murder, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
  • Taking of hostages;
  • Humiliating and degrading treatment;
  • Being sentenced or executed without trial by a recognized court

Article 3 also states that the "wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for."

Article 4

Defines who is protected by the convention. Only those who find themselves in occupied territory or are taken prisoner by a country of which they are not nationals (a foreign country or invading country) are protected. Citizens of countries not bound by the convention are excluded – that is, they are not protected. Citizens of a neutral or allied state are also excluded if the state has normal diplomatic relations with the occupying power.

Article 27

Describes rights of civilians: "Protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honour, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall, at all times, be humanely treated, and shall be protected, especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity. Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault. Without prejudice to the provisions relating to their state of health, age and sex, all protected persons shall be treated with the same consideration by the Party to the conflict in whose power they are, without any adverse distinction based, in particular, on race, religion or political opinion. However, the Parties to the conflict may take such measures of control and security in regard to protected persons as may be necessary as a result of the war."

“It is prohibited to order that there shall be no survivors.”
- Geneva Convention, Protocol 2

Protocol 2

Refers to non-international conflicts and extends the Geneva Conventions to include large-scale civil conflicts between the armed forces of a state and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups in its territory. It excludes internal disturbances, such as riots that are isolated and sporadic, which are not categorized as armed conflicts.

Article 4 of Protocol 2

Describes how humane treatment must be extended to civilians: Civilians (including fighters or soldiers who have put down their arms), whether they are prisoners or not, are entitled to “respect for their person, honour and convictions and religious practices” and must always be treated humanely, without discrimination. The Protocol specifically lists and prohibits the following violations of civilian rights:

  • Violence to the life, health and physical or mental well-being of the person;
  • Murder and cruel treatment such as torture, mutilation or any corporal punishment;
  • Collective punishments;
  • Taking of hostages;
  • Acts of terrorism;
  • Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault;
  • Slavery and the slave trade in all their forms;
  • Pillage;
  • Threats to commit any of listed violations.

Geneva Conventions, Protocol 1, Article 79:

“Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians... [and] shall be protected as such under the Conventions in this Protocol, provided they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians...”

In 1993, the UN Security Council ruled that the Geneva Conventions had passed into the body of customary international law, making them binding on everyone – signatories and non-signatories to the Conventions – whenever they engage in armed conflicts.

The rights of journalists

The Geneva Convention categorizes journalists who are attached to armies as non-uniformed participants in the war. What this means is that under international humanitarian law, journalists who are accredited by and travel with (are “embedded” in) an army are legally part of the military force. If captured by the enemy, they will be treated as prisoners of war. As prisoners of war:

  • Journalists have the right not to respond to interrogation (to remain silent)
  • Their notes, film and equipment may be legally confiscated
  • They may not be treated as spies unless there is evidence to prove that they are spies.

Journalists who are not part of the military, but are independent, are protected in the Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention, adopted in 1977. Article 79 of Protocol 1 says that journalists who are independent of the armed forces must be protected as civilians. Like all civilians, journalists are not subject to military discipline and must not be made targets for attack or suffer reprisals carried out by any side in the conflict. However, they will lose their civilian status if they take any action which suggests or shows they support one of the sides in the conflict; for example, carrying a gun, giving information or any other help for one side or the other. Summary of Article 79:

  • Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians.
  • They will be protected as civilians provided they do nothing to affect their civilian status (for example, taking part in the conflict; spying)
  • They may obtain an identity card similar to the one issued by the government of their country to confirm their status as journalists, but this is not compulsory.

Protocol 3 protective signs

Protective signs are symbols on uniforms, vehicles and buildings that are used during armed conflict to draw attention to the fact that they are protected under international humanitarian law. In general, people or objects carrying protective signs may not be shot at or attacked. The form, shape and color of the signs are defined by the rules of international humanitarian law. Use of protective signs is restricted to armed conflicts. The misuse of protective signs is a violation of international humanitarian law.

  • The red cross, the red crescent and the red crystal for people and objects under the protection of the Geneva Conventions
  • A blue triangle on orange background as the sign of civil defense, for personnel and objects of civil defense organizations (humanitarian rescue; other agencies that protect civilians)
  • The letters "PG" or "PW" to mark a prisoner-of-war camp and the letters "IC" to mark an internment camp for civilians
  • A red band on white background for hospitals and safety zones
  • The white flag is used by unarmed negotiators asking for a ceasefire or to symbolize surrender
  • The emblem of the UN and the letters "UN" for UN peacekeepers
  • The mark of the Roerich Pact (a treaty on the protection of historic and cultural sites) to identify historic monuments, museums, scientific, artistic, educational and cultural institutions
  • The marking of cultural property to mark property of great importance to cultural heritage.
  • Three bright orange circles to identify places of danger, like dams, nuclear power stations, electricity stations, etc.