Protecting the Victims of War
International humanitarian law
(IHL) is the branch
of international law that encompasses both humanitari-
an principles and international treaties that seek to save
lives and alleviate suffering of both combatants and
noncombatants during armed conflicts.
IHL’s principal legal documents are the Geneva
Conventions of 1949 — four international treaties that,
as of August 2006, have been universally adopted by all
194 nations in the world. These Conventions
provide specific rules to safeguard combatants (mem-
bers of the armed forces) who are wounded, sick, or
shipwrecked; prisoners of war; and civilians; as well
as medical personnel, military chaplains, and civilian
support workers of the military. The Additional
Protocols, which supplement the Geneva Conventions,
further expand these humanitarian rules.
International humanitarian law is founded on the
principles of humanity, impartiality, and neutrality. Its
roots extend to such historic concepts of justice as
Babylon’s Hammurabic Code, the Code of Justinian
from the Byzantine Empire, and the Lieber Code used
during the United States Civil War.
The development of modern international humani-
tarian law can be credited to the efforts of a 19th
Century Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant. In 1859,
he witnessed the aftermath of a bloody battle among
French and Austrian armies in Solferino, Italy. The
departing armies left a battlefield littered with wounded
and dying men. Despite Dunant’s valiant efforts to
mobilize aid for the soldiers, thousands died.
A Memory of Solferino
, his book about the expe-
rience, Dunant proposed that volunteer relief groups
be granted protection during war in order
to care for the wounded. A group known as the
Committee of Five (later to become the International
Committee of the Red Cross) formed in Geneva in
1863 to act on Dunant’s suggestions. Several months
later, diplomats from 16 nations, assisted by representa-
tives of military medical services and humanitarian
societies, negotiated a convention (treaty) containing
10 articles specifying that—
Ambulances, military hospitals, and the personnel
serving with them are to be recognized as neutral
and protected during conflict.
Citizens who assist the wounded are to be protected.
Wounded or sick combatants are to be collected and
cared for by either side in a conflict.
The symbol of a red cross on a white background
(the reverse of the Swiss flag in honor of the origin
of this initiative) will serve as a protective emblem
to identify medical personnel, equipment, and
Known as the Geneva Convention, this agreement
became the foundation of modern international
humanitarian law, which now encompasses four con-
ventions and two additional protocols. Collectively,
they represent the world community’s modern efforts
to protect people in times of armed conflict.
The Geneva Conventions of 1949