5.3.6.3  The Geneva Conventions

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/5363.htm)

The Geneva Conventions[1] were established for mutual benefit, to legally bind States to exercise constraint in their treatment of non-combatants: civilians and prisoners of war.  They form a definition of jus in bello, in the terminology of ‘just war’ theory (4.3.5.5). 

Almost all countries have agreed to comply, and in doing so they commit themselves to use their own jurisdictions to prosecute breaches.[2]  Implementation has been patchy in practice though.[3]

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[1] In May 2014, a useful introduction to the Geneva Conventions was available at http://www.ppu.org.uk/learn/texts/doc_geneva_con.html and the ICRC provided a fuller coverage at http://www.icrc.org/ihl/INTRO/380.

[2] Rule 158 of the Geneva Conventions declares:

“States must investigate war crimes allegedly committed by their nationals or armed forces, or on their territory, and, if appropriate, prosecute the suspects. They must also investigate other war crimes over which they have jurisdiction and, if appropriate, prosecute the suspects.”

The text of Rule 158 was available in May 2014 at http://www.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_cha_chapter44_rule158 and details of its practice were available at http://www.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v2_rul_rule158.

[3] Ward Ferdinandusse wrote an article entitled The Prosecution of Grave Breaches [of the Geneva Conventions] in National Courts, in which he observed that “the grave breaches regime has so far not lived up to its potential.”

This article was published in 2009, in the Law Journal of International Criminal Justice Volume 7, Issue 4, pp. 723-741; it was available in May 2014 at http://jicj.oxfordjournals.org/content/7/4/723.full.