Geneva Conventions and the cost of war

Staff Reports
Geneva Conventions and the cost of war
The U.S. and its allies have responded to chemical attacks on civilians in Syria with airstrikes on chemical weapons facilities in that country.

    Even so, a group of senators led by Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., want to do more. They’ve introduced legislation to bring Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad before a war crimes tribunal.
     In an interview with NPR, Alex Whiting, a Harvard Law School professor, said Assad could be charged with illegal use of chemical weapons, targeting civilians and other crimes spanning the seven years of the war.
    Asked if that meant the Geneva Conventions, Whiting responded, “Yes, that's correct. In customary international law -- the Geneva Conventions. The International Criminal Court has codified all of those crimes and has its own statute, and these would all be crimes under the International Criminal Court statute.”
    But what are the Geneva Conventions and how did they come about? Here is an overview along with links and sources for further study.

The Geneva Conventions: As described by Cornell Law School, the conventions are a  “body of public international law, also known as the Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflicts, whose purpose is to provide minimum protections, standards of humane treatment, and fundamental guarantees of respect to individuals who become victims of armed conflicts.”

The beginning: In 1859, Swiss businessman Henry Dunant witnessed a battle outside the northern Italian town of Solferino. He later published a book about what he witnessed, including attempts to care for the wounded.
    Dunant proposed that nations form relief societies to care for wartime wounded, recounts the website for the Noble Peace Prize. On Feb. 7, 1863, the Geneva Society for Public Welfare appointed Dunant and four others to examine a plan to do this. A conference held later that year included delegates from 16 nations. “On Aug. 22, 1864, 12 nations signed an international treaty, commonly known as the Geneva Convention, agreeing to guarantee neutrality to sanitary personnel, to expedite supplies for their use, and to adopt a special identifying emblem -- in virtually all instances a red cross on a field of white,” the website explains.
    Dunant's vision led to the creation of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent. The movement impressed a Civil War nurse named Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross in 1881.
    For his efforts, Dunant won the Noble Peace Prize in 1901. He shared the prize with Frederic Passy, founder and president of the first French peace society.

The second convention: Four decades later, the convention was revised. It “extended the protections described in the first convention to shipwrecked soldiers and other naval forces, including special protections afforded to hospital ships,” according to Cornell Law School. It was signed July 6, 1906.

The third convention: The Geneva Convention of July 27, 1929, governs treatment of prisoners of war. Captives must be treated humanely, protected from acts of violence, insults and public curiosity, the International Red Cross website explains. Captors cannot carry out reprisals.

The fourth convention: This convention, signed Aug. 12, 1949,prohibits attacks on civilian hospitals, medical transports, etc. It also specifies the rights of internees (POWs) and saboteurs,” Cornell Law School explains. Additionally, this convention discusses “how occupiers are to treat an occupied populace.”

The Geneva Protocols: There are also various protocols. The most notable is the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, signed June 17, 1925.



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