In 1859 a Swiss man, Henry Dunant, was horrified to see thousands of wounded soldiers after a battle being abandoned with no one to offer them aid or help.
Dunant suggested that voluntary relief societies should be set up and trained to care for the wounded in times of war. He also suggested that there should be an international agreement to protect the wounded from further attack.
In 1864 governments were invited to send representatives to a conference and 16 nations signed a treaty stating that in future wars they would care for all sick and wounded military personnel, regardless of nationality. Medical personnel would also be considered neutral in war and they would be identified by a red cross on a white background.
The Geneva Convention
The treaty was called the Geneva Convention. At this point the Convention was only concerned with wounded soldiers but it soon expanded to include others caught up in warfare who were not actually fighting.
The Second Geneva Convention expanded the first to include those wounded at sea.
The main points of these two conventions are that enemy forces who are wounded, sick or shipwrecked must be treated and cared for. Enemy dead should be collected quickly and protected from robbery. Medical equipment must not be deliberately destroyed and medical vehicles should not be attacked or damaged or otherwise prevented from operating.
The Third Geneva Convention, drawn up in 1929, covers military personnel who fall into enemy hands. It states that:
Prisoners of war must be:
- Shown respect at all times
- Allowed to notify their next of kin and the International Red Cross of their capture.
- Allowed to correspond with relatives and to receive relief parcels.
- Given adequate food and clothing
- Provided with shelter equivalent to those of their captor’s troops
- Given medical care
- Paid for any work they do
- Sent home if seriously ill or wounded provided they agree not to resume active military duties afterwards.
- Quickly released and sent home when the war is over.
Prisoners of war must not be:
- Forced to give any information except their name, rank and number
- Deprived of money or valuables without a receipt and guarantee they will be returned at the time of release
- Given individual privileges other than on grounds of health, sex, age or military rank
- Held in close confinement e.g. solitary confinement unless they have broken any laws. They can however have their freedom restricted for security reasons.
- Be forced to do military or dangerous or unhealthy work.
Countries that Signed the 1929 Geneva Convention
America Austria Belgium Bolivia Brazil Bulgaria Chile China Colombia Cuba Czechoslovakia Denmark Dominican Republic Egypt Estonia Finland France Germany Great Britain, Ireland and British Dominions Greece Hungary Iceland India Italy Latvia Luxembourg Mexico Nicaragua Norway Netherlands Persia Poland Portugal Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia Siam Spain Sweden Switzerland Turkey Uruguay Venezuela
Countries that did not sign the 1929 Geneva Convention
USSR – Would only agree to the terms of the Hague Convention that did not allow prison camps to be inspected, prisoners to receive correspondence, or for notification of prisoners taken.
Japan – though in 1942 did promise to abide by its terms