Definitions

Geneva Convention of 1949

Fourth Geneva Convention

The Fourth Geneva Convention (or GCIV) relates to the protection of civilians during times of war "in the hands" of an enemy and under any military occupation by a foreign power. This should not be confused with the better known Third Geneva Convention, which deals with the treatment of prisoners of war. The convention was published on August 12, 1949, at the end of a conference held in Geneva from April 21 to August 12, 1949. The convention entered into force on October 21, 1950.

As of 27 June 2006, when Nauru adopted the convention, it has been ratified by 194 countries.

Part I. General Provisions

This sets out the overall parameters for GCIV:

  • Article 2 states that signatories are bound by the convention both in war, armed conflicts where war has not been declared and in an occupation of another country's territory.
  • Article 3 states that even where there is not a conflict of international character the parties must as a minimum adhere to minimal protections described as: noncombatants, members of armed forces who have laid down their arms, and combatants who are hors de combat (out of the fight) due to wounds, detention, or any other cause shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, with the following prohibitions:
  • :(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
  • :(b) taking of hostages;
  • :(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment
  • :(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
  • Article 4 defines who is a Protected person: Persons protected by the Convention are those who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals. But it explicitly excludes Nationals of a State which is not bound by the Convention and the citizens of a neutral state or an allied state if that state has normal diplomatic relations with in the State in whose hands they are.
  • A number of articles specify how Protecting Powers, ICRC and other humanitarian organizations may aid Protected persons.

Protected person is the most important definition in this section because many of the articles in the rest of GCIV only apply to Protected persons.

Article 5 is currently one of the most controversial articles of GCIV, because it forms, (along with Article 5 of the GCIII and parts of GCIV Article 4,) the current government of the United States' interpretation of unlawful combatants.

Part II. General Protection of Populations Against Certain Consequences of War

Article 13. The provisions of Part II cover the whole of the populations of the countries in conflict, without any adverse distinction based, in particular, on race, nationality, religion or political opinion, and are intended to alleviate the sufferings caused by war.

Part III. Status and Treatment of Protected Persons

Section I. Provisions common to the territories of the parties to the conflict and to occupied territories

Article 32. A protected person/s shall not have anything done to them ''of such a character as to cause physical suffering or extermination ... the physical suffering or extermination of protected persons in their hands. This prohibition applies not only to murder, torture, corporal punishments, mutilation and medical or scientific experiments not necessitated by the medical treatment' While popular debate remains on what constitutes a legal definition of torture (see discussion on the Torture page), the ban on corporal punishment simplifies the matter; even the most mundane physical abuse is thereby forbidden by Article 32, as a precaution against alternate definitions of torture.

The prohibition on scientific experiments was added, in part, in response to experiments by German and Japanese doctors during World War II, of whom Josef Mengele was the most infamous.

Collective punishments

Article 33. No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.
Pillage is prohibited.
Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions collective punishments are a war crime. By collective punishment, the drafters of the Geneva Conventions had in mind the reprisal killings of World Wars I and II. In the First World War, Germans executed Belgian villagers in mass retribution for resistance activity. In World War II, Nazis carried out a form of collective punishment to suppress resistance. Entire villages or towns or districts were held responsible for any resistance activity that took place there. The conventions, to counter this, reiterated the principle of individual responsibility. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Commentary to the conventions states that parties to a conflict often would resort to "intimidatory measures to terrorize the population" in hopes of preventing hostile acts, but such practices "strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice."

Additional Protocol II of 1977 explicitly forbids collective punishment. But as fewer states have ratified this protocol than GCIV, GCIV Article 33. is the one more commonly quoted.

Right of return

Article 49. The second paragraph of Article 49 provides that persons displaced during armed conflict must be transferred back to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area in question have ceased. This right of displaced persons is often referred to as the "right of return" and has been reaffirmed in later international treaties and conventions. State Practice also establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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