The Geneva Conventions were created to protect soldiers and civilians from the horrors of war.  They outline the rules for the treatment of prisoners of war, civilian internees and sick, wounded, or shipwrecked soldiers.  It may constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity to violate the Geneva Conventions.  There are four Geneva Conventions (signed in 1949) and two additional Protocols.  The first two deal with the wounded and sick, the third deals with prisoners of war, and the fourth deals with civilians.  The two protocols deal with the victims of international and non-international conflicts.  The United States has signed onto these Conventions.

What are the Customary Laws?

Some rules are applicable in all conflicts, regardless of whether the countries have signed the Geneva Conventions.  Warring parties must obey Convention III, which requires that prisoners of war and wounded combatants be protected from: 

  • Murder
  • Discrimination based on race, religion, sex, and similar criteria
  • Mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture
  • Humiliating and degrading treatment
  • Sentencing or execution without a fair trial

Which Rules Apply to Me?

The Geneva Conventions make a distinction between civilians and combatants.  There are different rules for different classes of people in conflicts: 

  • Soldiers
    • Combatants must be clearly distinguishable from civilians, wearing uniforms and carrying weapons openly
    • POWs must be treated humanely – when questioned, POWs must only give their name, rank, birth date, and serial number
    • POWs must be immediately evacuated away from a combat zone and not unnecessarily exposed to danger – they may not be used as human shields
    • POWs may not be punished for the acts they committed during fighting unless the opposing side would punish its own soldiers for the same acts
  • Civilians
    • Civilians are not subject to attack – unless justified by military necessity, there is to be no destruction of property
    • Individuals or groups must not be deported
    • Civilians must not be used as hostages, must not be subject to outrages upon personal dignity, must not be tortured, raped, or enslaved, must not be subject to collective punishment and reprisals, and must not receive differential treatment based on race, religion, nationality, or political allegiance
    • Warring parties must not use or develop biological or chemical weapons
  • Journalists
    • War correspondents and journalists are recognized as civilians and are due all civilian protections
    • Journalists must not be deliberately targeted, detained, or otherwise mistreated – journalists must differentiate themselves from combatants by not wearing uniforms or openly carrying firearms

What Do I Do if I Feel My Rights Have Been Violated?

There are a number of agencies and organizations who potential victims may turn to.  Many of these agencies collect case histories and documentation of war crimes and human rights abuses.  They then distribute this information to the media.  Some organizations that may be able to provide help are the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations (High Commissioner for Refugees and High Commissioner for Human Rights), Inter-American Court on Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, local human rights groups, and elected officials.

Do I Need a Lawyer Experienced with Human Rights Issues?

International law can be a confusing field.  A lawyer who is experienced with international law and human rights issues can help you decide whether your rights have been violated.  A lawyer can guide you to the proper agencies or organizations that can help you with your case. You may wish to contact a government lawyer for advice.