summary of the geneva conventions and additional protocols


The Geneva Conventions of 1949 are four international treaties ratified by 196 states, including all members of the United Nations. There are two additional protocols (I and II) in 1977 and one additional protocol in 2005 (III).

Additional ratification since 2000 means that the Geneva Conventions are now considered universally applicable international law. This means countries who claim they are not subject to the Geneva Conventions have no basis as it part of customary international law.

The Geneva Conventions and additional protocols seeks to regulate international armed conflict, protect non-combatants and minimise loss of life. It is a foundational principle of international humanitarian law (IHL).

The Geneva Conventions came about from a conference of diplomats across the world in 1949, building on earlier treaties of conflict.


The First Geneva Convention - The Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field of August 12, 1949

  • Containing 64 articles, the First Geneva Convention protects combatants that are wounded and sick in times of armed conflict.
  • Ensures the wounded and sick receive adequate care. (Article 15)
  • Recognises the International Committee of the Red Cross, other relief organisations and neutral governments to assist the wounded and sick. (Article 9)
  • Provides protection for medical and religious personnel giving medical assistance.
  • Protection for civilians who spontaneously take up arms to repel an invasion.
  • Protection from attack of medical transport, and those with distinctive medical emblems (together with their national colours).
  • Recognised emblems are the red cross on a white background, red crescent on a white background, and red lion and sun on a white background (the Islamic Republic of Iran were the only state to have employed the red lion and sun but has since abandoned its use) (Article 38).
  • Flights over enemy or enemy-occupied territory are prohibited. If an involuntary landing occurs, the wounded and sick, and crew of the aircraft become prisoners of war.


The Second Geneva Convention - The Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea of August 12, 1949

  • With 63 articles, it closely follows the First Geneva Convention, but with conditions for the wounded and sick at sea in times of armed conflict.
  • As with the First Geneva Convention, it applies to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognised by one of them.
  • Protection of wounded and sick combatants while on board a ship or at sea.
  • Protection of hospital ships and medical personnel.
  • Parties in armed conflict to take all possible measures to care for the wounded, sick and shipwrecked. Shipwrecked means any forced landing at sea by or from aircraft. (Article 12)
  • Protection of the wounded and sick at sea without any distinction based on sex, race, nationality, religion, political opinions or similar criteria.
  • Attempts upon their lives, or violence to their persons is strictly prohibited. They should not be murdered, exterminated or subject to torture or biological experiments. They should not be left without medical assistance or care. They should not be exposed to contagion or infection.
  • If the wounded, sick or shipwrecked are taken on board a neutral ship, it shall be ensured they can no longer take part in the operations of war.
  • If the wounded, sick or shipwrecked fall into enemy hands, they shall become prisoners of war. The provisions of international law concerning prisoners of war shall apply to them.
  • Hospital ships cannot be used for any military purpose.
  • Hospital ships cannot be attacked or captured on the condition that their names and descriptions have been notified to the Parties of conflict ten days before the ships are employed. (Article 22)


The Third Geneva Convention - The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War of August 12, 1949

  • Contains 143 articles about the treatment of prisoners of war in armed conflict. It is explicit on the daily treatment of prisoners of war, including the conditions and places of captivity.
  • (Article 4) Prisoners of war are:
  1. Members of armed forces party to the conflict (including militias and volunteer corps)
  2. Members of other militias and other volunteer corps (including resistance movements), operating in or outside their own territory that are (a) being commanded by a person (b) having a fixed distinctive sign recognisable at a distance (c) carrying arms openly (d) conducting operations in accordance with the customs of war.
  3. Members of armed forces professing allegiance to a government or authority not recognised by the Detaining Power.
  4. Accompanying combatants without being members thereof (such as civilian members of military aircraft crew, supply contractors, war correspondents, members of services responsible for the welfare of the armed forces).
  5. Members of crews (masters, pilots, apprentices, merchants and so on).
  6. Inhabitants of non-occupied territory that carry arms openly, respect the customs of war and approach the enemy spontaneously to resist the invading forces.
  • Prisoners of war are to be able send and receive letters and cards and receive relief packages. (Article 71 and 72)
  • Prisoners of war must not be subject to torture or other inhumane treatment (medical experimentation, acts of violence).
  • Prisoners of war are only bound to give their first names, surname, rank, date of birth and army/regimental/personal/serial number. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment. Prisoners of war may not be subject to physical or mental torture to secure from them any information of any kind. (Article 17)
  • The questioning of prisoners of war shall be carried out in a language which they understand.
  • Sufficient drinking water and basic daily food rations shall be supplied to prisoners of war to keep them in good health and prevent loss of weight or nutritional deficiencies. The use of tobacco shall be permitted.
  • Disciplinary measures affecting food are prohibited.
  • Adequate premises shall be provided for messing.
  • Seriously ill prisoners of war must be returned home. (Article 110)
  • Prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities. (Article 118)


The Fourth Geneva Convention - The Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of August 12, 1949.

  • Contains 159 articles on the protection and treatment of civilians in areas of armed conflict and occupied territories.
  • The lack of protection for civilians in World War II led to the need for the Fourth Geneva Convention.
  • If security allows, civilians are permitted to lead normal lives.
  • Indiscriminate destruction of property and the taking of hostages are prohibited.
  • The safety, manners and customs of civilians are to be respected. (Article 27)
  • Civilians are to be protected from murder, torture, extermination, medical experiments, and any other measures of brutality.
  • Civilians are to be protected regardless of race, religion, nationality or political opinion.
  • The Occupying Power has the duty to ensure food and medical supplies of the population.
  • A notable article of the Fourth Geneva Convention is article 3 - conflicts not of an international character. This covers cases of armed conflict not of an international character ensure the following:
  1. Persons not taking part in combat (including members of the armed conflict who have laid down their arms and the sick and wounded) shall be treated humanely, without discrimination based on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth or any other similar criteria. To the mentioned persons, the following is prohibited (a) violence, including murder, mutilation, torture and cruel treatment (b) taking as a hostage (c) humiliating and degrading treatment (d) being sentenced or executed without judgment pronounced by a constituted court afforded with judicial guarantees recognised by civilised peoples.
  2. The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.


Introduction to Protocol I and Protocol II in 1977, and Protocol III in 2005.

After the Geneva Conventions in 1949 were adopted, the world witnessed a number of armed conflict not of an international character. This generated an international diplomatic conference to give greater protection to international (Protocol I) and non-international (Protocol II) armed conflict, and also to include an additional distinctive emblem (Protocol III) in 2005.  


Protocol I - Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, 8 June 1977.

  • Protocol I has 102 articles relating to the protection of victims in international armed conflict.
  • Protocol I expands civilian population protection. Civilians cannot be the object of attack, including threats of violence of which the primary purpose is to spread terror. (Article 51)
  • Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited, of which include a means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective, an attack on a clearly separated concentration of civilians or civilian objects located in a city, town, village or other area.
  • Protection from an attack expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
  • Civilians shall have such protection unless for such a time they take direct part in combat.
  • It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. This includes foodstuffs, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies. (Article 54)
  • Recruitment of children under the age of 15 into the armed forces is prohibited. (Article 77)
  • The use of weapons that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is prohibited. (Article 35)
  • Protocol I develops the First and Second Geneva Conventions on the wounded, sick and shipwrecked. (Articles 8-34). It includes protection to civilian medical personnel, equipment and supplies.


Protocol II - Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, 8 June 1977.

  • Protocol II has 28 articles relating to the protection of victims of non-international armed conflicts.
  • It expands and develops article 3 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, protections for conflicts not of an international character.
  • Non-international armed conflict means conflict between armed forces and other organised armed groups in a territory. It does not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots and sporadic acts of violence. (Article 1)
  • The fear that Protocol II could affect state sovereignty, and allow justification for outside intervention for matters of maintaining law and order in a sovereign state means that the treaty was shortened to only 28 articles. This was addressed in article 3 of Protocol II - that nothing in Protocol II shall be invoked as a justification for intervening, directly or indirectly, in the armed conflict in the territory of which that conflict occurs.
  • Persons who do not take a direct part or cease to take part in hostilities will be treated humanely. It is prohibited to order that there shall be no survivors. (Article 4)
  • Children shall be provided with care and aid. This includes receiving education and a reunion of separated families (Article 4).
  • It is prohibited to commit acts of hostility directed against historic monuments and places of worship and to use them in support of the military effort. (Article 16)


Protocol III - Protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem, 8 December 2005

  • Protocol III has 17 articles relating to the adoption of a new emblem- the red crystal.
  • The red crystal now has the same international status as the red cross and red crescent emblems, as described in chapter VII of the First Geneva Convention. 
  • The three emblems: red cross, red crescent and red crystal are a visible sign of neutral status and grants protection by international humanitarian law to medical services and volunteers belonging to relief societies for wounded military personnel.



Further reading:

The Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols I,II and III can be found in full here:

19th February 2017.