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The United Nations and the Geneva Conventions

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Timothy Braden

on 24 March 2014

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Transcript of The United Nations and the Geneva Conventions

In 1949 with the Second World War not long past, the superpowers of the world came together to re-address three old convention treaties and add a fourth one to create what has been collectively known as the Geneva Conventions. These “conventions” created laws to instill a greater degree of humanitarianism that had been lacking from wars past by protecting wounded and sick soldiers on land and at sea, humanely treating prisoners of war, as well as offering rules for the protection of noncombatants and civilians in an occupied territory.(1) These new laws of war advanced the idea of more civilized combat, however the United Nations abstained from their creation since their Charter made them a proponent for peace, not war. However, the UN and its Security Council have utilized the Geneva Conventions as a means for securing peace when factions violated the laws in committing war crimes.

1. International Committee of the Red Cross, “The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols,” from http://www.icrc.org/eng/war-and-law/treaties-customary-law/geneva-conventions/overview-geneva-conventions.htm, accessed 23 February 2014.
The UN, while vehemently claiming to strive for global peace, has “operated in a grey area of international law, not strictly accountable to the Geneva Conventions, which were signed only by representatives of countries and not by international organizations.”(3) This is why they technically did not have to agree to follow them as an institution. Furthermore, “the Conventions established standards of behavior only for combatants, and UN forces traditionally are interposed between those combatants only as peacekeepers.”(4) This may seem like a mere technicality, since most of the members of the UN have agreed to follow these agreements. However, “donning the blue helmets effectively provided States a way to escape their legal obligations.”(5)

3. Markus Balser, “UN Forces to Follow the Geneva Conventions,” United Nations Chronicle 36, no. 4 (1999): 12, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/docview/218174851/430AAB5D1C8B4CAFPQ/1?accountid=8289, accessed 23 March 2014.
4. Ibid.
5. Roy Gutman, “United Nations and the Geneva Conventions,” http://www.crimesofwar.org/a-z-guide/united-nations-and-the-geneva-conventions/, accessed 23 March 14.

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When one thinks about the United Nations they inevitably think of international peacekeeping. This is why the fact that the UN did not immediately sign on to them is so interesting. These conventions set out to take some of the barbaric qualities out of war, in the hope of minimizing suffering and casualties. The first actual convention was in 1864 in which a treaty was hashed out that ensured the protection of wounded or sick soldiers on land. The next one came in 1906 which expanded the first to include those wounded, sick, and even shipwrecked sailors at sea. The third Convention was the Prisoner of War Convention of 1929 which set standards for the humane treatment of POWs. These first three were all revised and updated then wrapped up with the addition of the fourth treaty in 1949, which added the protection of noncombatants and civilians. Currently 194 countries have signed agreements to follow the Geneva Conventions.(2)

2. Ibid.

Although they had finally agreed to follow the treaties of the Geneva Conventions and hold their members who violated the rules accountable, it has not always been an infallible process. “Sometimes, on the eve of deployments, the Security Council would issue a statement reminding States of the applicability of the pertinent Geneva rules and the obligation to punish violations [and] other times the council would ‘forget’ to mention the point.”(7) This is a sad reminder that though the UN had made strides in how it portrayed its peacekeepers’ intentions, that some of the members of the UN had less than honorable motives.

7. Gutman, “United Nations and the Geneva Conventions.”

Though there have been some issues with the UN coming completely onboard with following the treaties, it has predominately been a positive act. The UN has held several countries accountable for violating the Geneva Conventions, such as Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. Also, the UN has used the conventions’ rules to hold inter-state conflict violators accountable, and set up tribunals to judge and punish those who infringed on human rights. This was particularly effective in the case of the atrocities committed in Yugoslavia and Rwanda in which the UN set up the International Criminal Tribunals for each. These courts “had a considerable positive effect, encouraging the inclusion of penal provisions relating to violations of international law in internal armed conflicts.”(8)

8. Roman Boed, "Individual Criminal Responsibility for Violations of Article 3 Common to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and of Additional Protocol II Thereto in the Case Law of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda," Criminal Law Forum 13, no. 3 (2002): 293-322, http://search.proquest.com/docview/207980782?accountid=8289, accessed 23 March 2014.

War has significantly changed since the 1940’s. In today’s wars there are rarely two distinct armies that fight against each other, and more often there are mercenaries, terrorists, warlords, and even women and children that are involved in the conflicts. “The key point about current conflicts is that they represent a present and future form of war that is far removed from the archetype for which the Geneva Conventions were designed.”(9) Though the UN has enforced Geneva Convention violations in the situations of Rwanda and Yugoslavia, the entirety of the agreements and what they were made for seem to be a distant memory. It is implausible to think that terrorists or warlords care at all about human rights violations, or anything for which the Geneva Conventions were made for that matter. It raises an interesting question: How does the UN, or any nation associated with the Geneva Conventions, fight an entity fairly that refuses to honor the humane ways of war outlined by the agreements?

9. Renée de Nevers, "The Geneva Conventions and New Wars," Political Science Quarterly 121, no. 3 (Fall, 2006): 369-395, http://search.proquest.com/docview/208290469?accountid=8289, accessed 23 February 2014.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 were forged to try to ease the suffering and horrific effects brought on by war. The United Nations were not able to bind themselves to these agreements initially due to their institutional status, which allowed some of its more ethically-challenged nations to skirt adherence to them by sending their troops to fight under the UN shield. The UN would come around and eventually enforce the laws of the Conventions on its troops, and hold nations in violation of the treaties accountable for their actions. In the end, “it is easy to forget how much worse the fate of all humans would be in the absence of the Geneva Conventions,” and that “in the midst of the atrocities that persist today, they hold us to a higher standard of human dignity that cannot be contracted away.”(10)

10. Theodor Meron, "The Geneva Conventions and Public International Law," International Review of the Red Cross 91, no. 875 (09, 2009): 619-625, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1816383109990440, http://search.proquest.com/docview/217741356?accountid=8289, accessed 23 February 2014.

Though its members played an enormous role in the forging of the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations as a whole did not have much of an impact. As an example to the world for peace, they surprisingly did not seem to fully endorse these agreements which would lead to a much more humane approach to the brutality of war that was witnessed during the two World Wars which shook the planet to its core. Going forward, the United Nations should strive to try and re-shape or tailor the Conventions’ agreements to include the members involved in the non-traditional conflicts of today, and never waiver in holding any and all people or nations who violate these laws accountable for their actions. It is imperative that they never show weakness in their resolve to uphold these humanitarian agreements, so that the world knows they must adhere to them lest they suffer the consequences.
The United Nations and The Geneva Conventions
The History of Peacekeeping, MILH421
Professor Linda Rhoades-Swartz
23 March 2014


Balser, Markus. “UN Forces to Follow the Geneva Conventions.” United Nations Chronicle 36, no. 4 (1999): 12. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/docview/218174851/430AAB5D1C8B4CAFPQ/1?accountid=8289. Accessed 23 March 2014.

Boed, Roman. "Individual Criminal Responsibility for Violations of Article 3 Common to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and of Additional Protocol II Thereto in the Case Law of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda." Criminal Law Forum 13, no. 3 (2002): 293-322. http://search.proquest.com/docview/207980782?accountid=8289.

Gutman, Roy. “United Nations and the Geneva Conventions.” http://www.crimesofwar.org/a-z-guide/united-nations-and-the-geneva-conventions/. Accessed 23 March 14.

International Committee of the Red Cross. “The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols.” From http://www.icrc.org/eng/war-and-law/treaties-customary-law/geneva-conventions/overview-geneva-conventions.htm. Accessed 23 February 2014.

Meron, Theodor. "The Geneva Conventions and Public International Law." International Review of the Red Cross 91, no. 875 (09, 2009): 619-625. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1816383109990440. http://search.proquest.com/docview/217741356?accountid=8289. Accessed 23 February 2014.

Renée, de Nevers. "The Geneva Conventions and New Wars." Political Science Quarterly 121, no. 3 (Fall, 2006): 369-395. http://search.proquest.com/docview/208290469?accountid=8289. Accessed 23 February 2014.

Thalif Deen JDW, UN Correspondent. "UN Troops Will Recognise Geneva Convention." Jane's Defence Weekly 032, no. 008 (Aug 25, 1999): 1. http://search.proquest.com/docview/198563231?accountid=8289. Accessed 23 February 2014.
Decades after the treaties were signed the UN finally agreed that its peacekeeping troops would formally abide by the principles of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, as well as observe all international humanitarian laws. Though the UN is an organization which preaches peace over war, with peacekeeping troops potentially being caught up in violent conflict it was essential that they behaved in the humane manner agreed upon by their civilized member-states. Not only did the UN announce that they would follow these rules, they also stated that “in the case of any violation, members of the military personnel of a UN force are subject to prosecution in their national courts.”(6)

6. JDW Thalif Deen, UN Correspondent, "UN Troops Will Recognise Geneva Conventions," Jane's Defence Weekly 032, no. 008 (Aug 25, 1999): 1, http://search.proquest.com/docview/198563231?accountid=8289, accessed 23 February 2014.
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