Geneva Conventions

The four Geneva Conventions, agreed by every country, set out how soldiers and civilians should be treated in war.

Helicopter and car with red cross on

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols set out how soldiers and civilians should be treated during armed conflict.

What are they?

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols form the basis of modern international humanitarian law, setting out how soldiers and civilians should be treated during war.

Although they were adopted in 1949, to take account of the experiences of the Second World War, the four Geneva Conventions continue to apply to armed conflicts today. Two Additional Protocols were adopted in 1977, which expanded the rules. Then a third Protocol was agreed in 2005, which recognised an additional emblem, the red crystal.

What is international humanitarian law?

International humanitarian law (IHL) is a set of international laws that establish what can and can’t be done in an armed conflict.

IHL protects all victims of armed conflicts, including civilians, and combatants who are injured, have been captured or have laid down their arms. All parties to an armed conflict – whether states or organised non-state armed groups – are bound by IHL.

Also known as the laws of war or the law of armed conflict, the best known of these rules are found in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949.

The rules of war are universal. The Geneva Conventions have been ratified by 196 countries. Very few international treaties have this level of support.

During armed conflict, such rules include:

  • care for the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, regardless of whether they are friends or enemies
  • humane treatment of prisoners
  • protection of civilian persons and property
  • respect for the red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems
  • attacking only military targets
  • limiting use of force
  • permitting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to carry out its activities.

The Movement and international humanitarian law

Red Cross and Red Crescent organisations have a unique role under the Geneva Conventions.

As a neutral, impartial, and independent body, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) can offer humanitarian protection and assistance during armed conflicts. Countries must allow the ICRC to visit prisoners of war. They also exchange family messages and help search for missing persons.

The British Red Cross supports this work by delivering family messages, and helping to provide medical aid and relief supplies when needed.

National Societies, such as the British Red Cross, also have a special role as voluntary aid societies. This includes providing additional help to the medical services of their country's armed forces.

Finally, the ICRC and National Societies have a role in promoting, implementing and developing IHL.