The Origins of the Geneva Conventions

As the president and Congress debate whether detainee-treatment procedures outlined in the Geneva Conventions need to be clarified, host Alex Chadwick talks with military law professor Gary Solis about the origin of the Geneva Conventions.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

We've used this term Geneva Conventions a lot in the last week, but what exactly are the Geneva Conventions? We're joined by Gary Solis. He's a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. He retired last year from teaching at West Point, where he directed the academy's Law of War program.

Gary Solis, welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Professor GARY SOLIS (Georgetown University Law Center): Thank you.

CHADWICK: Take us back. When was the first Geneva Convention? And I'll note that it really is Geneva Conventions, plural. There have been several of them.

Prof. SOLIS: Correct. The first Geneva Convention was in 1864. Now, there was one convention, that for the protection of the wounded, which was generated by a battle in a war of - between Austria and Sardinia, and that was in 1859. There were almost 40,000 casualties, French and Austrian. And in those days, as was the custom, those who couldn't march away with their armies were left on the battlefield, and an observer was horrified by this, an observer by the name of Henry Dunant. He was Swiss businessman and he went back to Geneva, where he lived, and he got together with some other Swiss businessmen.

It was decided that something had to be done to protect these wounded who could not fend for themselves. And in 1864, Dunant called a conference at which there were 16 nations, including the United States and Britain, and they wrote the first Geneva Convention, in 1864.

CHADWICK: So...

Prof. SOLIS: The U.S. did not sign.

CHADWICK: All right. Well, there's another Geneva Convention in 1906, I think it is. And then another one after World War I, and then finally, another one after World War II. And why all these reconvenings?

Prof. SOLIS: Well, it was originally planned that there would a reconvening every four years, and that resulted finally in the 1949 conventions for the wounded and sick, wounded and sick at sea, and for prisoners of war. And for the first time, for civilians, who we saw in World War II, were ever more victimized by war.

CHADWICK: How about the common articles of the Geneva Conventions? This is what's come up, Common Article 3. What is a common article of the conventions?

Prof. SOLIS: Common Article 3 is not called common article for nothing. There are in the 449 Geneva Conventions about 16 to 20 articles, which are in all four of the conventions. In other words, they are common to all four. And arguably, the most important one of those is Common Article 3. It's the only article in the modern Geneva Conventions which applies to non-international armed conflict, which is what we are engaged in - technically speaking - in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

CHADWICK: Well, I've heard people in the administration say that the Geneva Conventions don't apply in places like Afghanistan and don't apply against insurgents who don't wear uniforms, don't actually participate on behalf of a state, that they are a kind of acting on their own.

Prof. SOLIS: Yes, I've heard similar assertions, which are entirely incorrect. And I think that that's pointed out by the Supreme Court decision in last June - Hamdan v. Rumsfeld - in which the Supreme Court said, yes, Common Article 3 does apply to those prisoners that we are holding in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and Iraq.

CHADWICK: When the president says that a prohibition on interrogation techniques that would be outrages on human dignity, when he says that that's too vague, isn't it pretty vague?

Prof. SOLIS: It is indeed vague. If we are allowed to say what Common Article 3 means to us, every other nation, nations at which - with which we may be at war in a future time - can do the same thing. And I think that that would be a very unwise precedent.

CHADWICK: Gary Solis retired last year as director of the West Point Law of War program. He's now a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington and a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel.

Professor, thank you.

Prof. SOLIS: My pleasure.

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