We usually think of conventions as gatherings of people who have a common interest, such as partisan politics, genealogy, or the TV show Star Trek. They get together to wear name tags, slap each other on the back, argue, pass resolutions, and get so drunk that they throw up on their shoes.
That is the, uh, conventional use of the word convention, but it has several other senses, including the one that applies to the Geneva Conventions. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “an international agreement, esp. one dealing with a specific matter.”
The specific matter that the Geneva Conventions address is what might be called humane rules for warfare. I know that sounds ironic, like the famous line from the movie Dr. Strangelove: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”
They were, in fact, a series of international treaties, the first of which was formulated in 1864 at a diplomatic conference organized by the Swiss Parliament. Representatives of twelve countries had assembled in Geneva, Switzerland, which is not nearly as popular a convention city as Las Vegas or Chicago.
Geneva happened to be the home of a man named Henri Dunant, who was so appalled by battlefield conditions he had seen that he was instrumental in founding the International Red Cross. Dunant and the Red Cross pushed for rules to be established that would provide treatment for wounded soldiers and protect civilians who rendered aid to the wounded on the battlefield.
The second treaty, which applied to wounded, sick and shipwrecked naval personnel, was adopted in 1906. A third convention was added in 1929; it has to do with the humane treatment of prisoners of war. The fourth Geneva Convention was adopted in 1949 following World War II, when the first three conventions were widely ignored by the belligerents.
The fourth convention expanded upon the principles of the first three, and added protections for civilians who get caught up in warfare. Among other things, it forbids taking hostages, torture, and discrimination in treatment on the basis of race, religion or nationality.
Since then, there have been protocols (amendments) added to the four basic Geneva Conventions. The most recent, enacted in 2005, has to do with the symbols worn by medical personnel. In addition to the traditional Red Cross or Red Crescent, this protocol adopts the Red Crystal emblem, which looks sort of like the diamond suit in a deck of cards.
Personnel wearing any of those symbols are supposed to be considered neutral and therefore not targets. By the way, if combatants try to mislead the enemy by wearing one of the protective symbols, that is considered a war crime.
Enforcement of the Geneva Conventions is delegated to the United Nations Security Council, but as we have seen, that group has trouble agreeing on anything, including a comfortable temperature for the air conditioning in their chamber. In spite of that, almost 200 countries are signatories to all or most of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions.
Unfortunately, the protections embodied in the Conventions don’t seem to have abated the universal popularity of warfare: Since the first one was enacted in 1864, over 150 million people have died in armed conflicts or their direct consequences.