Would you be 1 of 5? A look into the Geneva Conventions

At the American Red Cross, that statistic makes us a bit sad. You see, the Geneva Conventions are at the heart of what we do, and they are deeply tied to how we came to be, especially this week as the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. But rather than dwell on the negative, we thought it would be the perfect time to start changing that statistic by telling our story.

Before we get too much into our history lesson, we want to highlight two key terms first: International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the Geneva Conventions.  Both the IHL and the Geneva Conventions are sets of rules that seek to limit the methods and consequences of armed conflict as well as protect civilians who are not participating in wartime activities.

Specifically, the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols are a series of documents and agreements adopted by all nations in the world as a way to protect civilians in conflict zones, allow safe passage for the sick and wounded, and promote humanitarian treatment of prisoners.  More generally, the umbrella term of IHL refers to the overall collection of documents, treaties and case law relating to humanitarian treatment during times of conflict. IHL does not ask why a conflict exists, but concerns itself with alleviating the human suffering the results from it, and oftentimes you’ll hear it referred to as the “law of war.”

Even though the Geneva Conventions weren’t in effect until 1949, the concepts behind them have roots in the Civil War Era, when President Lincoln commissioned Francis Lieber to draft a code of war – the Lieber Code – as a way to limit the suffering and destruction caused by battling troops. The rules set forth in the Lieber Code became the basis of other similar treaties internationally and represents the first attempt to codify the laws of war.

It was also during the Civil War that Clara Barton, the eventual founder of the American Red Cross, applied humanitarian principles to her work as a nurse on the battlefield. Inspired by her experiences as a nurse, Clara later founded the American Red Cross – an organization based on the humanitarian principles of the National Red Cross movement – as she began to advocate for the U.S. ratification of the first Geneva Convention.

Even today, the Geneva Conventions are written into the American Red Cross, figurative and literally.  Although we are not a government agency (and rely on the donations and generosity of the American people), we still follow a Congressional Charter…a charter which charges us to “carry out the purposes of the Geneva Conventions.”

We hope you’ll join us as we continue to promote the humanitarian principles still as relevant for the conflicts around the world today as they were 150 years ago.


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