When Does the Geneva Convention Apply?

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Often an argument raised by inmates or others who feel they have been wronged but are not sure what rights to call upon, the Geneva Conventions are frequently misidentified as the source of a variety of “rights” one does not have. The Geneva Conventions are actually a series of agreements, not a single document, and among the most misapplied by legal novices. So when do the Geneva Conventions really apply?

The Geneva Conventions are rules that have been agreed upon by various member nations and apply usually to times of armed conflict. The Conventions seek to protect people who are not (or are no longer) taking part in hostilities, including the sick and wounded, shipwrecked sailors, prisoners of war, and civilians.

There are actually four Conventions. The first dealt with the treatment of wounded and sick armed forces in the field, the second dealt with the sick, wounded, and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea, the third dealt with the treatment of prisoners of war during times of conflict, and the fourth dealt with the treatment of civilians and their protection during wartime.

Notably, the Geneva Conventions do not apply to civilians in non-wartime settings, nor do they generally have a place in dealing with domestic civil rights issues. Those who cite to the Geneva Conventions to support arguments regarding prisoner's rights, civilian rights, or other matters are usually well off-base in their arguments.

The Geneva Conventions are designed to provide mutual assurances between party nations that troops, sailors, and civilians can expect humane treatment. They are intended to assure that those who are caught in these conflicts will not be sacrificed or treated inhumanely. By doing so, the conventions hope to hasten a resolution to armed conflicts by making it possible for those involved to surrender without fear of summary execution, torture, or other pain or humiliation. It also protects civilians and the injured and sick, those least able to protect themselves, from inhumane treatment like rape, torture, and murder.

While these agreements are difficult to enforce during open conflict, enforcement authority falls to the United Nations Security Council. The UNSC rarely invokes its authority regarding the Geneva Conventions, however, so most issues regarding the Geneva Conventions are resolved by regional treaties related to it or by national law of the warring states. Not all violations of the Conventions are treated the same. The most serious violations of the Conventions are called “grave breaches,” and are usually classified as a war crime. Grave breaches include willful killing, torture or inhumane treatment, biological experiments performed on captives, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health of captives, compelling someone to serve in the forces of a hostile power, willfully depriving someone of the right to a fair trial if accused of a war crime, taking hostages, extensive destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity, and unlawful deportation, transfer, or confinement.

If you or someone you know has an issue related to war crimes or violations of the Geneva Conventions, you should contact an attorney for assistance. International laws are extremely complicated to navigate and often have conflicting and overlapping authorities. For a list of attorneys in your area, visit the Law Firms page on our website at HG.org.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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