By KIMBERLY RIEKEN
Sixty years after the ratification of the 1949 Geneva Convention, people gathered at the Library of Congress for a conference to celebrate the treaty’s historic milestone. Held on Dec. 3, “The Geneva Conventions at 60: Taking Stock” focused on the significance and history of the Geneva Conventions as well as their relevance to today’s global conflicts. The event was sponsored jointly by the Law Library of Congress, the Friends of the Law Library of Congress and the American Red Cross.
In her opening remarks, Law Librarian of Congress Roberta Shaffer shared the history of the Geneva Conventions, which comprise four treaties that set the standard in international law for humanitarian treatment of the victims of war. The first was formulated at an international meeting held in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1864, establishing rules for the treatment of prisoners of war, the sick and the wounded during wartime. The context at the time was the Civil War.
Three conventions followed: in 1906, 1929 and 1949. The Geneva Convention of 1949 was negotiated after World War II to update the first three treaties and add a fourth to protect civilians. These four treaties have been adopted by all 194 nations of the world. The singular term “Geneva Convention” is often used to refer to the agreement of 1949.
“I hope that the Geneva Conventions are so much a part of global humanity’s consciousness that we are aware of the milestones of the convention in everything that we do,” said Shaffer.
The Geneva Convention is integral to the history of the American Red Cross. One of the first 10 articles of the Geneva Convention of 1864 protected the symbol of a red cross on a white background, which later became the organization’s symbol.
“The conventions ensure that humanitarian actors can provide care and other basic services during armed conflicts,” said Suzy DeFrancis, chief public affairs officer for the American Red Cross. “They enshrine the basic principles that wounded soldiers should be cared for, captured soldiers should be treated humanely and civilians should be spared.”
Following remarks by DeFrancis, the audience viewed a recorded message from Ambassador Susan Rice, United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations and member of President Obama’s Cabinet.
“We embrace the Geneva Conventions because it is the right thing to do,” said Rice. We embrace them because hard experiences have taught us that we are safer and stronger when we do. The United States will support and advance international humanitarian law, both as a matter of national policy and as a basic precept for the entire international community,” Rice said.
Adding to the program, with their legal and military backgrounds, were W. Hays Parks, senior associate deputy general counsel, International Affairs, Office of General Counsel, Department of Defense; Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, dean of the Academic Board, U.S. Military Academy at West Point; and Rep. Thomas Rooney (R-Fla.).
As a retired colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, Parks shared his thoughts on the success of the conventions. According to Parks, although the conventions have been ignored in cases such as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1971, there are many more cases in which they have been followed. Parks gave examples involving the U.S. military actions in Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait in 1991 and Operation Enduring Freedom (global war on terror).
Parks emphasized that the conventions are not always easy for soldiers to adhere to during wartime. In response to a soldier who asked, “The enemy is not abiding by the conventions so why should we?” Hays answered, “We’re not working for them, we’re working for our government and doing what our nation expects of us.” He added that as a moral obligation, “We must fight the way we fight following the Geneva Conventions regardless of how the other side fights.”
Reiterating the importance of the conventions, Finnegan talked about the military’s obligation to educate its officers and cadets on international humanitarian law. “We teach the Geneva Conventions throughout the military. The common articles of the conventions require teaching soldiers what the conventions say. We do this routinely before soldiers deploy and even have classes while they are overseas,” he said.
A topic Finnegan felt strongly about was the use of torture, which the conventions forbid. He shared his seven key beliefs about the use of torture. According to Finnegan, torture is ineffective, leading to false confessions; yields no actionable intelligence; promotes battlefield misconduct; is counterproductive; erodes the character of the perpetrators and their nation; is unlawful and morally wrong.
Finnegan asked, “How can we be about freedom if we condone torture? When times are tough, that is when you find who you really are.”
Rooney, who spent more than four years in the U.S. Judge Adjutant General Corps, discussed modern enemies and why nations cannot submit to their way of fighting.
“The work that the Red Cross has done, the purpose of the Geneva Conventions and the subsequent protocols, the laws of war need to recognize more than they have that the enemy is doing what they’re doing for a specific purpose,” said the congressman.
According to Rooney, the goal is to destroy by using natural and humanitarian law as a weapon. Therefore, it is important to live by and fight according to treaties that protect all involved.
“The enemy we face today uses or violates the Geneva Conventions as a main weapon and that makes it very difficult,” said Rooney. “In the end we have to stand up as Americans, stand up as army officers and do the right thing when faced with conflicts, regardless of what the enemy is going to do and regardless of how difficult the enemy is making it on us.”
Geneva Conventions at Your Fingertips
For those interested in learning more about the Geneva Conventions, the Library of Congress holds a plethora of primary and secondary sources, some of which can be accessed through the Library’s website.
The Law Library holds numerous secondary sources pertaining to the Geneva Conventions, including the proceedings of the four conventions in various printings. The bibliographic citations for the 1949 convention and the official “Final Record” of this convention can be found at http://lccn.loc.gov/90216792 and http://lccn.loc.gov/75238335, respectively.
The Library of Congress Catalog contains bibliographic information for a wide array of secondary materials. A search on subject headings such as “War—Relief of Sick and Wounded,” “War—Protection of Civilians” and “Prisoners of War” will result in a display of sources relating to the Geneva Conventions, including the official commentary of the 1949 convention (http://lccn.loc.gov/58039174).
The Military Legal Resources website (www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/), an ongoing project of the Federal Research Division and supported by the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School Library, provides hundreds of full-text documents on materials related not only to military law, but to international humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions and numerous other publications of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Among these are the authoritative “Pictet” commentary on the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the “Commentary on the Additional Protocols of June 8, 1977,” “How Does Law Protect in War?” and “Constraints on the Waging of War: An Introduction to International Humanitarian Law.” The site also contains numerous reports from conferences of government experts on conventional weapons, reports and resolutions from diplomatic conferences, and all issues of the International Review of the Red Cross for the period 1961-1998.
Researchers may also consult newspapers from the time period of each convention. Many of these are now online through the Library’s collaborative newspaper digitization effort known as Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov). This website allows users to search newspapers by selecting a state or specific newspaper, a year or date range as well as a keyword search.
The Library’s Prints and Photographs Division holds images pertaining to the Geneva Conventions, some of which are accessible online. To access the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog go to www.loc.gov/pictures/ and search on “Geneva Conventions.”
Kimberly Rieken is the office operations assistant in the Public Affairs Office.