Humanitarian action and international law

France and international humanitarian law, 70 years after the signature of the Geneva Conventions

The atrocities committed on the battlefields of the Second World War made it clear that the First Geneva Convention signed in 1864 needed to be supplemented. In 1949, at the instigation of the Swiss Government, 59 States took part in a conference to draft the additional texts. Twelve other States and several international organizations, including the United Nations, were observers. The four Geneva Conventions, signed on 12 August 1949, developed new ideas, particularly when it comes to the protection of civilians, enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention.

These treaties protect the people who take no active part in hostilities (civilians, members of healthcare and religious staff and humanitarian organizations) and people who are not involved in combat (the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, and prisoners of war).

The 1949 Conventions were then supplemented by the 1977 Additional Protocols on the Protection of Victims of Armed Conflicts.

The Conventions and their Protocols provide that measures will be taken to prevent what are called “grave breaches” or put an end to them ; the perpetrators of these breaches must be punished.

The Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols, the basis for international humanitarian law

In 1949, in the wake of the Second World War, States universally welcomed these Conventions that are based on two fundamental principles :

  • Respect for life and personal dignity, as provided for in Article 3 (common to all Conventions) that prohibit cruel treatment, torture, hostage-taking and executions without previous judgment ;
  • The principle of solidarity, according to which the wounded and sick shall be cared for indiscriminately. The Conventions reinforces the role of medical missions and the protection of medical personnel, units and means of transport in all circumstances.

The Conventions and Protocols help to save many lives and establish limits for the barbarism of war.

France supports worldwide compliance with these texts

France signed the four Geneva Conventions on 12 August 1949. They were then ratified in 1951.

Article 1, which is common to the four Conventions, affirms the obligation to respect and to ensure respect for the Conventions in all circumstances. Yet, international humanitarian law is violated every day.

At the United Nations, France promotes the universalization and respect for the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols. It is particularly attentive to its further development in order to address current challenges in this area.

France works to promote the protection of humanitarian and medical personnel and their free access to populations in conflict zones.

France and Germany launched a call for humanitarian action in their successive presidencies of the United Nations Security Council.

France instigated the Political Declaration on the Protection of Medical Care in Armed Conflict of 31 October 2017 and is working for wide endorsement by States.

Creation of the Red Cross and First Geneva Conventions

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The Red Cross was created in 1863 at the instigation of the Swiss national, Henri Dunant, who was outraged by the treatment of the wounded in the Battle of Solférino in 1859. Building on this initiative, the First Geneva Convention was signed in August 1864. It is made up of ten articles and primarily aims to improve the treatment of wounded military personnel on battlefields. In addition to France, 11 European States initially joined (Baden, Belgium, Denmark, Hesse, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, Spain, Switzerland, Württemberg), later followed by Norway and Sweden.

This Convention of 1864 marks the genuine birth of international humanitarian law, the branch of international law that governs the conduct of armed conflicts and aims to limit their consequences.

Henri Dunant would be the first person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when it was created in 1901 for all of his efforts.

Updated : May 2019