There is a misconceived notion that the Geneva Convention restricts means of warfare to exclude measures that cause “excess” bodily harm – such as hollow point bullets. These things are addressed in the Hague Conventions (held in 1899 and 1907). The Geneva Convention is the general name for the four treaties and three protocols that resulted from conventions that were held in 1864, 1906, 1929 and 1949 that drafted treaties binding the involved countries to certain standards of humanitarian treatment of peoples not involved in war (the three protocols were added onto the 1949 treaty in 1977 and 2005).

The Memoir of Solferino, written by Henry Dunant, a Swiss social activist, was published in 1861. In this novel, Dunant proposed that there should be a relief agency to provide aid during times of war, and that governments should recognize that agency as a neutral source of humanitarian aid within war zones. This served as the inspiration for the Geneva convention (and would later merit awarding Dunant the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901). The Red Cross was founded in 1861 (established in the US in 1882, thanks, in large part, to Clara Barton’s campaigning) to meet the desire for a neutral organization that would “preven[t] and alleviat[e] human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.” (Red Cross Mission Statement, p.1). And, in 1864, several European states met and drafted the treaty known as the First Geneva Convention.

The First Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field (1864) established the first guidelines for the treatment of men removed from battle due to illness or injury. First, it established neutrality and protection for all facilities and staff who treat the sick and wounded during times of war. Next, it provided that all ill and injured should be cared for equally, regardless of nationality. Lastly, it established the symbol of the Red Cross as a means of identifying the persons and institutions involved in this effort.

The Second Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea (1906) essentially built upon the foundation laid by the first Geneva Convention. And, as the lengthy name suggests, it extends these protections to wounded and ill militarymen, and their caretakers, at sea. The Second Geneva Convention also extends care to shipwrecked armed forces. It requires neutral vessels to help in rounding up the sick, wounded, and shipwrecked, and that those neutral vessels cannot be attacked or captured, so as not to impede their humanitarian mission. And, due to that goal, those ships cannot be used as warships. In addition to protecting the personnel aboard a hospital ship (or other neutral vessel used for care taking under these provisions), the 2nd Geneva Convention also protects religious and medical personnel serving on combat ships.

The Third Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (1929) was an even lengthier document that goes into great detail defining prisoners of war, and regulating their treatment. The treaty includes providing basic standards for living, such as hygiene, food and water, access to medical care, restrictions from physical and mental torture, regulating disciplinary actions, and even provides structure for prisoners of war to elect a liaison to communicate problems from prisoners to their captives. It also regulates communication from outside captivity to the prisoners within (and vice versa). The Third Geneva Convention also outlines the responsibility for the state to fund care of prisoners of war, how the release and repatriation or deaths of prisoners should be managed.

The Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949) updates the previous treaties. As the title suggests, it dealt largely with treatment of civilians during times of war (including banning the practice of “total war,” and the definition of “Protected Persons” and how they should be treated), but it also extended the enforcement of all established regulations to be used during armed conflicts regardless off whether war was declared. Another point that the 4th Geneva Convention included was to decide minimum protections for noncombatants during civil conflicts (as opposed to international).

The measures of protection set out in the Geneva Convention has, in some degree, become less relevant as warfare develops – especially with increasingly asymmetrical warfare. However, the humanitarian standards the Conventions established still serve as the backbone for protecting civilians and other noncombatants.