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The 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary

December 8, 2015

About the author(s):

Katharine Fortin is an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University where she teaches international humanitarian law and international human rights. Before joining Utrecht University, she worked at the ICTY, ICC and Norton Rose Fulbright. She is the author of The Accountability of Armed Groups under Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2017) which won the 2018 Lieber Prize. Katharine has written widely about the framework of law that applies to armed groups in non-international armed conflicts and she is one of the editors of the Armed Groups and International Law blog. She has recently started a 3-year NWO-Veni research project called ‘Dangerous Liaisons: civilian agency, armed groups and international law’.

1949 Commentary GCsLast week, I had the good fortune to get my hands on a copy of The 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary published by Oxford University Press. Edited by Andrew Clapham, Paola Gaeta and Marco Sassoli, the Commentary represents a mammoth piece of work that will surely become essential reading for IHL scholars around the world. Considering the scope of the work, it is no wonder to see that it has been compiled by not only three editors, but also five assistant editors, Iris van der Heijden, Ilya Nuzov, Julia Grignon, Annie Hylton and Tom Haeck.

Rather than mirroring the approach of the original ICRC commentaries, the editors of the 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary have chosen to arrange the work by subject matter. Instead of taking an article-by-article approach to the Geneva Conventions, the chapters address cross-cutting issues (e.g. hospitals, search for missing persons). The book has seventy four different chapters and  contributions from over sixty different authors. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the Commentary is that the editors have tasked the different authors to represent their own views, rather than seeking to represent a collective viewpoint. As a result, the individual chapters each retain a refreshing, thought-provoking feel despite their place in such a massive volume.

Indeed, one of the outstanding qualities of the book, is that despite being huge (nearly 1600-pages), The 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary is surprisingly accessible. It is organised into bite-sized chapters which are often less than 20 pages in length. In addition, the chapters are eminently readable and helpfully structured in a deliberately user-friendly way. Each chapter begins with a short outline and a select bibliography listing the main texts on which the author relies.  Many of the substantive chapters are structured in an identical manner, so as to make the book function as an accessible reference guide. Each chapter contains the following: (i) an introduction to the relevant provision (ii) a section on the provision’s meaning and application (iii) a section on the provision’s relevance to non-international armed conflicts (iv) a section discussing the legal consequences of a violation and (v) a critical assessment.

The individual chapters of the book fall under the following broad headings:-

PART I: CROSS-CUTTING ISSUES AND COMMON PROVISIONS

  1. CROSS-CUTTING ISSUES
  2. COMMON PROVISIONS
  3. GENERAL
  4. SPECIAL RULES
  5. COMMON ARTICLE 3
  6. ENSURING COMPLIANCE WITH THE CONVENTIONS
  7. THE GENEVA CONVENTIONS IN CONTEXT

PART II: SPECIFIC ISSUES AND REGIMES

  1. GENEVA CONVENTIONS I AND II
  2. GENEVA CONVENTIONS III
  3. GENEVA CONVENTIONS IV
  4. GENERAL
  5. CIVILIANS IN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY: GENERAL PROTECTION
  6. SPECIFIC PROTECTION
  7. INTERNMENT
  8. OCCUPIED TERRITORY

It will be clear from this description that I am hugely impressed by this volume which is a staggering editorial achievement,  bringing together some of the finest IHL scholarship around. There is no doubt  in my mind that it will become a classic text for students and researchers.

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