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Updated 06/06/2005

The Geneva Conventions

The Geneva Conventions are a set of international treaties governing conduct in warfare. The first convention, signed in 1864 by 14 nations, was designed to protect the sick and wounded during wartime. It was inspired by Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross. Subsequent conventions were signed in 1906 and 1929. However, what is often referred to today as the "Geneva Conventions" are the four conventions ratified in 1949 and two additional protocols of 1977. Today a total of 190 countries are party to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. 

The four 1949 Geneva Conventions set forth protections for members of the armed forces who become sick or wounded in the field, extend those protections to members of the naval forces, list rights for prisoners of war, and establish protections for civilian populations in times of war. The Geneva Conventions apply to all cases of declared war or other armed conflict among member countries, even if all do not recognize the state of war. The conventions also apply to all parties engaged in civil war within a member country and to cases of territorial occupation, even if that occupation meets with no armed resistance.  

The 1977 protocols expand the application of the conventions to include victims of armed conflicts fighting "against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination, and victims of internal conflicts in which armed opposition has sufficient control to carry out sustained military operations.

Specific protections for civilians, contained in the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, state that those "taking no active part in hostilities," including detainees, should not be subjected to (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; (b) taking of hostages; (c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment; (d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

For more information 

Society of Professional Journalists Reference Guide to the Geneva Conventions 

Text of the Geneva Conventions