You’ve heard it mentioned countless times but how much do you really know about the Geneva Convention? From war films such as Bridge on the River Kwai you might know that it deals with prisoners of war, and from news reports about Iraq you’d work out it has something to do with the rules governing combat and soldiers. But could you say anything more than that?
To celebrate its 148th birthday, here are ten essential facts about this famous document:
- The Geneva Convention was signed on 22 August 1864 in the Alabama Room of Geneva Town Hall.
- Twelve states signed it: Baden, Belgium, Denmark, France, Hesse, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Prussia, Spain, Switzerland, and Wurtemberg.
- The UK signed up in 1865, the USA in 1882 and Germany in 1906.
- The original convention had ten articles, covering the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers in the field, as well as establishing the neutrality of hospitals, ambulances and medical staff.
- Article 7 states that “a distinctive and uniform flag shall be adopted… a red cross on a white ground.”
- A Second Convention followed in 1906, covering the treatment of sick and wounded at sea: a Third Convention was added in 1929, covering the treatment of prisoners of war: a Fourth Convention came in 1949, covering the protection of civilians in time of war.
- It is all thanks to one Swiss man, Henry Dunant, who founded the precursor of the Red Cross in 1863 and was the driving force behind persuading the Switzerland to host the conference to formalise the rules of war.
- Dunant received the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, and the Red Cross went on to win the prize three times (1917, 1944, 1963).
- The Red Crescent was first used by the Ottoman Empire in 1876 and is now the official symbol for 32 countries.
- The ICRC (to give the Red Cross its formal name) is still based in Geneva and has 12,000 staff worldwide with an annual budget of 970 million Swiss francs.
Today the Geneva Convention and Red Cross are respected as neutral guardians of correct behaviour and humanitarian aid. But 148 years ago, none of that existed to regulate the aftermath of warfare. As horrendous as war and conflicts are, they could be so much worse if Henry Dunant had not had the vision and courage to force nations into action.
He gave the world a conscience and for that we should be forever grateful, especially today.