Friday, August 22, 2014

The Geneva Conventions: Celebrating 150 years of Humanitarian Action

By Bill Fortune, American Red Cross

Geneva Conventions
 poster from Library of

Every day we are bombarded with the horrors of war. We wake up in the morning and bear witness to atrocities. Many live in fear for loved ones that are trying to survive in the midst of conflict. Many of those loved ones struggle to survive.

Wars have raged throughout the centuries and each one becomes the "worst ever". The rules of engagement may have changed and our weaponry has become more sophisticated but that has only served to escalate the need for humanitarian action.

Wars now rage in densely populated areas resulting in direct impact on civilians. Hundreds of thousands of people become refugees as they try to avoid a conflict. Regard for human life has declined to the point where civilian casualty counts exceed those who are actually doing the fighting.

But, even wars have limits, or at least they should have.  The Geneva Conventions were written to set a standard of humanitarian action. The Conventions are still relevant today and perhaps have more meaning than ever. Have we forgotten that? We know there are forces today that do not "sign on" to the Geneva Conventions and who feel that any and all means should be used to further their cause. Those nations that have "signed on" remain committed to the words and the ideals behind the agreements. It is time for us to remember.

August 22 commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions which were first developed on that date in 1864. A time when the United States was deeply involved with the Civil War. This treaty bound 11 European nations to provide aid to wounded soldiers in all future conflicts and to recognize the neutrality of aid workers and the wounded. Eleven of those original signers of the Geneva Convention also pledged to establish national Red Cross societies.

Pamphlet cover for "The Red Cross
and the Geneva Convention"
It took several years for the United States to ratify the treaty. Clara Barton, a proponent of the Conventions, lobbied heavily in the United States to solicit support for an American Red Cross Society. She published a pamphlet in 1878 called The American Red Cross and the Geneva Convention that emphasized the importance of supporting international humanitarianism along with a unique set of peacetime responsibilities. It wasn't until 1882 that the United States Senate voted to ratify the Geneva Conventions  and authorized the American Red Cross to act as its official relief agency in time of war.

As the American Red Cross expanded, under the leadership of Clara Barton, its role during peacetime transformed itself into one with a focus on civilian relief following disasters. Disaster response included distribution of material aid during major floods in 1883, earthquakes in 1886, tornadoes and yellow fever in 1888 and the Johnstown, PA flood in 1889.

Since those formative years the American Red Cross has remained a leader in humanitarian action around the world. Today we look back on a proud history of humanitarian service and action, thankful for those whose love for humanity gave them the strength and courage to bring nations together under the Geneva Conventions.

1 comment:

  1. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which was ratified in the aftermath of World War II is usually reference point when people think of the Geneva Conventions.

    There were actually four Geneva Conventions. The First Geneva Convention was agreed to in 1864. The agreement provided for the protection of all medical facilities, their personnel and any civilians aiding the wounded. It also gave birth to the Red Cross and gave its societies international recognition as a neutral medical group that operated purely with humanitarian interests.

    The First convention was originally signed by 12 European nations. The United States signed the Second Convention, which occurred in 1882. The second convention gave consideration to navys and extended the protection of the first convention to wounded combatants at sea and shipwrecked sailors.

    The Third Geneva Convention was convened in 1929 and resulted in specific protections for prisoners of war. The Fourth Geneva Convention was signed in 1949. This convention reaffirmed the requirements of the first three conventions and provided protections for civilians during wartime.

    The atrocities occurring in the Middle East at the hands of ISIS are in direct conflict with the Geneva Conventions and its additional protocols and the ideas and values they were meant to represent. The innocents and vulnerable must be protected fro the tyranny, cruelty, and brutal actions of tyrants.

    The Geneva Conventions gave birth to humanitarian ideas that forever changed how nations acted during times of war and sewed the seeds that gave power and international recognition to the most active humanitarian society during war and peace times.