This week marks the 70th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. On the anniversary of this series of world-changing meetings, we invite you to pause with us and reflect on where the world stands 70 years later.

To say that the transformative – and growing – set of agreements that emerged from the Conventions “matter” is an understatement; the agreements can make the difference between life and death. Respect – or lack thereof – for the Conventions and subsequent Protocols may determine the fate of millions of civilians trapped in the growing number of armed conflicts devastating populations around the world today.

How you think of the Conventions – assuming you think of them at all – depends a great deal on where you live in the world. For those living in places currently experiencing peace and stability, the Conventions’ stipulations might seem like a relic of the past – documents that were signed decades ago as the world ended its second global war. Meanwhile, those caught in the midst of brutal, ongoing conflict might question whether the Conventions still matter when many parties to today’s conflicts seem to ignore all or major parts of those documents and civilian death tolls reach the hundreds of thousands.

If these thoughts have crossed your mind, I urge you to remember that the Geneva Conventions were born out of the industrial-scale death and savagery of World War II, during which nearly 80 million people – or between 3-4% of the world’s entire population at that time – died. Of those who perished during “only” six years of fighting and war-related mass atrocities, 30-55 million are estimated to have been civilians.1http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/world-war-two-casualties-by-country/ and see extensive listing of sources cited: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties#Total_deaths. Put another way, there were at least 13.699 civilian deaths every 24 hours. Many of those millions of men, women, and children died because fighting in that war, both in tactics and strategy, had few – if any – limits.

On the heels of such destruction, the Conventions aimed to prevent the human race from future death and destruction at such levels. When one considers the evolution of lethal war technology since 1949, an even more devastating scenario is not hard to imagine in our present times.

Seventy years ago tomorrow, August 12, marks the adoption of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. This Convention put “civilians at the center,” making them a focus of attention rather than collateral in war for the first time. Recognizing that civilians had become the primary victims of more lethal warfare than ever before, the world reached consensus that militaries should be expected to apply protective measures to civilians, all while carrying out their primary purpose of fighting the enemy and without putting soldiers at higher risk than is otherwise the case.

It is important to remember that those gathered around the table to craft the provisions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions were people who themselves had personally been in the trenches during the war. They had seen death up close – of fellow soldiers and of civilians – and knew first-hand what can happen when even the most basic tenets of civilization and humanity are obliterated.

In the decades that followed, the world refined and bolstered the foundational 1949 agreements, including in the realm of protecting civilians. The 1977 Protocols and other subsequent provisions more specifically set out what principles of protection should be applied in order to prevent and minimize civilian harm. These provisions included, for example, obligations to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to use amounts of force proportionate to military advantage.

While an overdue first step to enhance the protection of civilians, the Conventions and subsequent Additional Protocols say little as to how these obligations should be implemented and operationalized on the battlefield. It has been an ongoing challenge to identify and apply effective ways for armed actors to realistically translate “paper into practice.”  

The formation and integration of a protection of civilian mindset as a priority at all levels within military decision-making must at the same time account for the primary mission of the combatant, the realities of war, and the evolution of warfare and technology. Navigating this reality is exactly what we are doing at CIVIC, including by engaging militaries across the globe, such as in Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the Ukraine, and providing technical assistance in the design and building of civilian harm tracking mechanisms. By systematically and proactively collecting and analyzing information about the effects of military operations on civilians, militaries are able make informed adaptions to internal processes, such as rules of engagement or tactical directives. Such modifications can make a concrete difference and save civilian lives without jeopardizing military objectives.

Civilian protection and military objectives do not exist in opposition; when it comes to armed actors and civilians, conflict need not be a zero-sum game. Quite the contrary. In addition to legal and humanitarian arguments supporting the protection of civilians, it is smart, effective, data-based military strategy to prioritize civilian protection.

Recognizing the vulnerability of civilians trapped in hostilities and mitigating against civilian harm is also crucial to ending a conflict in a sustainable way. On the other hand, failing to take such measures may provide pyrrhic battle wins against the adversary but, in the longer-term, create new and more deeply-entrenched conflict drivers that fuel perpetual cycles of violence; civilians previously not engaged in the conflict may be motivated to start participating directly in hostilities, whether for revenge, self-protection, or other reasons that could have been avoided had civilian protection measures been taken and applied.

Everything we do at CIVIC aims to promote better protection of civilians. We envision a world where parties to armed conflicts recognize the dignity and rights of civilians, prevent civilian harm, protect civilians caught in conflict, and amend harm. Seventy years after the adoption of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, many things have changed, including political landscapes, geo-political alliances, and the availability of more lethal weapons, rendering already challenging battlefields even more so, especially in high-tempo urban warfare. But one thing remains steadfastly the same: how conflict is conducted determines whether civilians live or die.

In 2009, Knut Dörmann, then Head of the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross, addressed a joint conference of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Red Cross in marking the 60th anniversary of the Conventions:

The Geneva Conventions remain the cornerstone for the protection and respect of human dignity in armed conflict. They have helped to limit or prevent human suffering in past wars, and they remain relevant in contemporary armed conflicts.

One decade later and seventy years after their adoption, the need to “limit or prevent human suffering” is dire. Join us today in reflecting on the humanity the Geneva Conventions are designed to preserve, and in the months and years ahead in ensuring the obligations are realized in protecting civilians caught in conflict zones around the world.


[1] http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/world-war-two-casualties-by-country/ and see extensive listing of sources cited: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties#Total_deaths.


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