Written by Betty Jane Bailey
Go on the Internet and do a search for the Geneva Conventions. You are just as likely to get a site that tells you how to run a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, as you are a reference to the international humanitarian laws.
Yet, several times a week on TV, we hear reference to the Geneva Conventions, especially accusations of infractions or disregard. And, no, they are not a series of conferences. They are the rules of war agreed on by the nations of the world to defend human dignity and prevent unnecessary suffering.
There are four Geneva Conventions, but we hear mostly about Convention III and Convention IV. (Conventions I and II concern the wounded and sick in the armed forces in the field and at sea.) They all give clear rights to and respect for the International Committee of the Red Cross and similar humanitarian organizations.
Geneva Convention III deals with Prisoners of War and includes provision for determining who is a POW along with responsibilities of the Detaining Power such as humane treatment, adequate food and drinking water, and sanitary measures. Prisoners of War must be permitted to exercise their religious duties and to write directly to their families. Rules for repatriation are also set out.
Civilian Persons in Times of War is the subject of Geneva Convention IV and refers to times of war, other armed conflict and partial or total occupation. Special protection is given to children under 15, mothers of children under 7, expectant mothers, and the wounded, sick and infirm.
Regulations include the provision of food and medical supplies as well as the prohibition of pillage or forcible transfer. Among the rules are that the occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territories it occupies. Clear regulations are also included concerning the treatment of internees.
These rules, which are dated 1949, are meant to transcend any one conflict and embody values which can be found in cultures and religious teachings around the world. They were created in response to the horrors of World War II but they trace their origin back to the formation of the International Red Cross by Jean Henri Dumont and a meeting in Geneva in 1864.
They have been adopted by 190 nations, including the United States, United Kingdom, Iraq and Israel.
Additional sections of international humanitarian law are contained in the Hague Conventions (including protection of cultural property) and two 1977 Protocols to the Geneva Conventions.
The Rev. Betty Jane Bailey represents the Board for Global Ministries at the United Nations.