Enacted after the horrors of World War II demonstrated the limitations of earlier treaties, the Geneva Convention of 1949 have become one of the preeminent international standards dictating the behavior of combatants and the treatment of individuals in the context of international and other conflicts, to the point that it has become a part of generally accepted customary international law. Building upon three earlier treaties signed in Geneva, the Convention of 1949 outlined rigorous standards defining and governing the treatment of civilian and military prisoners, the wounded, and civilians found in and around the war zone. Over the course of the last decade, the centrality of the Geneva Convention to international war and politics has come to the fore as a result of debates surrounding the relevance of the Convention to the United States execution of the War on Terror, especially in regards to the treatment and detainment of combatants and other individuals captured in Afghanistan and Iraq. Examining the history of the Geneva Convention, and particularly the Third Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of prisoners of war, in conjunction with an analysis of the United States' interpretation of the Conventions as they apply to the War on Terror will serve to demonstrate the continued importance of the Geneva Conventions as well as the limitations and complications which arise when attempting to apply them in a modern context, and reveal the possibility of a frightening future where the Geneva Conventions, having grown gradually less relevant to the realities of twenty-first century warfare, are ignored altogether.
The Geneva Convention of 1949 was actually the fourth such treaty, and it built upon the three earlier treaties which had been signed in 1864, 1906, and 1929, after the events of World War II demonstrated that the previous treaties were no longer sufficient to maintain the just and humane treatment of individuals in and around war zone, regardless of their status as civilians or members of the military. However, these previous treaties were not the only factors which contributed to the writing and signing of the 1949 Conventions, because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed a year earlier, "helped to shape the four momentous 1949 Geneva Conventions and their principles of jus in bello, or justice in war" by constructing an ideological framework in which the protection of universally recognized human rights became a central concern, and were considered as an issue separate from those treaties governing, for instance, the use of certain kinds of weapons in war (Lauren 2011, p. 229). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was one of the first international responses to the trauma and bloodshed of World War II, and the momentum built up by its signing served to set the stage for a revision and expansion of the existing Geneva Conventions that would include protections not only for those individuals engaged in direct combat, but also those civilians found in and around the battlefield.
Much of the impetus behind both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1949 Geneva conventions came from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had announced in 1945, "while the Allied armies were preparing to bridge the Rhine and the Oder and begin their victorious march across Nazi Germany," that "it was gathering information and initiating talks with a view to revising the Geneva Conventions to reflect the experience of six years of war," war that had included a previously unprecedented genocide, forced "scientific" experiments on prisoners of war, and the practice of total war which resulted in numerous civilian deaths and the massive destruction of property (Bugnion, 2000, p. 41). Even after the experience of World War I shocked the international community into action, the devastation of the second World War was so widespread and undeniable that even those powers ideologically oriented against each other came together in order to ensure, or at least attempt to ensure, that mayhem and abuse on such a massive scale could never happen again.
The passage of the revised Conventions represented one of the last instances of genuine cooperation between the Soviet Union and the Allied powers following their united defeat of Nazi Germany, and this fact is reflected in the revival of "the old scholastic doctrine of 'just war,'" which the Soviet Union, among other nations, deployed in order to argue "that a victim of aggression was not bound to respect the provisions of the laws and customs of warfare when fending off an aggressor state whose very act of war was itself a violation of the law," in an attempt to claim "the benefits of international humanitarian law while reserving the right to disregard any provisions that might restrict their freedom of action" (Bugnion, 2000, p. 43). Thus, while the Soviet Union agreed to the Conventions, it made its reservations known, and this intention of disregarding the protections and rights ensured by the Convention when dealing with enemies who were not signatory to it would have far reaching ramifications, all the way up to the present.
That this was an issue even at the time of the Conventions' signing is worth noting, because the notion of claiming the protections of international law while disregarding those portions that might restrict certain actions has become relevant once again in the context of the United States' decade-long global war on terror, as the United States government, federal and international courts, and human rights groups attempt to define precisely how the Geneva Conventions apply to this unprecedented and altogether novel form of warfare. However, before considering these issues, it will be useful to first discuss the contents of the Convention as well as the way its interpretation and application has developed over the course of half a century, as a means of understanding the developments which led to the role of the Geneva Conventions in the contemporary world.
In general, the Geneva Conventions "cover a vast range of problems stemming from land, air or naval warfare, including the protection of wounded combatants and prisoners of war, of civilian populations and civilian objects affected by military operations or present in occupied territories, and of medical and religious personnel and buildings" (Steiner, Alston, & Goodman 2008, p. 70). One of the most important developments prior to the 1949 Conventions came after World War I, in 1929, when new standards were formulated governing which countries would enforce the provisions of the Conventions during a conflict, which allowed "belligerents [to designate] a substitute neutral State if the original Protecting Power ceased to function or became a belligerent" (Draper, 1979, p. 14-15).
However, "the Second World War exposed this embryonic system to strains, fissures, and defects that largely frustrated its operation," so by the conclusion of the war, it was clear that if the international community desired to maintain even the facade of "in the words of the landmark St. Petersburg Declaration of 1868 -- 'alleviating as much as possible the calamities of war,'" new, more robust controls would be needed (Draper, 1979, p. 15, & Steiner, Alston, & Goodman, 2008, p. 70). Aside from updating the terms of the three previous treaties, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 added the Fourth Convention, which is specifically concerned with "the protection of civilian persons in times of war" ("Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional protocols," 2011).
This was in addition to the first Geneva Convention, which covers the treatment of the sick and wounded in land conflicts, the second Geneva Convention, which covers the treatment of the sick and wounded in sea conflicts, and the third Geneva Convention, which covers the treatment of prisoners of war. In addition to the protection of civilians as established in 1949, two additional protocols were added in 1978, "designed primarily for the protection of civilians," and third protocol was added in 2005, signifying an additional symbol to be worn by those engaged in humanitarian efforts, in addition to the Red Cross and Red Crescent used since the earliest years of the Convention (Draper, 1979, p. 13).
As seen above, the Geneva Conventions have changed relatively little since their adoption in 1949, because aside from the largely clarifying protocols of 1978, no effective efforts have been made to update the Conventions in light of changing contexts and methods of warfare. However, there is one important development in the application of the Geneva Conventions which must be noted, because demonstrates the importance of the Conventions as well as their continued widespread applicability. In 1993, in response to the atrocious human rights violations "within the territory of the former Yugoslavia and especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina," the United Nations Security Council affirmed that the standards of the Geneva Conventions had "beyond doubt become part of international customary law," meaning that states who were not signatory to the treaty itself were nonetheless bound by its laws if they engaged in armed combat (United Nations Security Council, 1993, p. 9).
Perhaps even more so than the protocols of 1978, this affirmation of the Geneva Conventions' status as…