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63 year anniversary of the Geneva Conventions

August 14, 2012

Sunday 12 August, celebrations of “International Humanitarian Law Day” took place. This date was also used to draw attention to a humanitarian cause.

On 12 August 1949, the main treaties of international humanitarian law (IHL), the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, were concluded. Since the recent ratification by South-Sudan these treaties are – once again – universally ratified.

Prior to the adoption of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, a non-international armed conflict only came within the scope of international law if those taking up arms against the government were recognised as belligerents. Before reaching the stage of belligerency, two other stages in civil strife were distinguished in the law and practice: rebellion and insurgency. Under traditional international law, rebellions and insurgencies (within the borders of a sovereign State) were considered the exclusive concern of the concerning State; and were therefore not considered subject to the laws of war. Belligerency status, on the other hand, was hardly ever granted.

During the Red Cross conferences in the years leading up to the drafting of the Conventions, the ICRC proposed to extend the new conventions to conflicts of an internal nature in their entirety. In the end, however, the States could only agree on Common Article 3, which would become applicable to armed conflicts “not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties”. This articles contains minimum humanitarian standards and has been referred to as a ‘convention within a convention’, or ‘mini-convention’.

By now, the amount of rules applicable to non-international armed conflicts is as a result of newer treaties that extend their application to such conflicts, e.g. dealing with the protection of cultural property or the use of landmines, and through customary IHL, far more extensive. However, the 1949 Geneva Conventions expanded the frontiers of IHL: the first three Conventions updated existing treaties and the fourth broke new ground by making detailed provisions for the treatment of civilians, but “[t]he major novelty was Article 3 common to all four Conventions, which for the first time introduced the principles of the Geneva Conventions into the domain of non-international conflicts.” As such the Conventions broke “through the obstacle posed by considerations of national sovereignty to impose a legal framework on internal conflicts”; something worth celebrating.

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