1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Geneva Convention

GENEVA CONVENTION, an international agreement for the purpose of improving the condition of wounded soldiers of armies in the field, originally adopted at an international conference held at Geneva, Switzerland, in 1864, and afterwards replaced by the convention of July 6, 1906, also adopted at Geneva. This later agreement is the one now known as the Geneva Convention. The conference of 1864 was the result of a movement which sprang from the publication in 1862 of a book entitled Un Souvenir de Solférino by Henri Dunant, a Genevese philanthropist, in which he described the sufferings of the wounded at the battle of Solférino with such vivid effect that the subject became forthwith one of public interest. It was energetically taken up by M. Gustave Moynier, whose agitation led to an unofficial congress being held at Geneva in October 1863. This was followed by an official one at Geneva, called by the Swiss government in 1864. The convention which was there signed (22nd August 1864) on behalf of the states represented, afterwards received the adherence of every civilized power.

At a second conference on the same subject, held at Geneva in 1868, a supplementary convention was drawn up, consisting of fourteen additional articles, five of which related to war on land and nine to naval warfare. The additional articles were not, however, ratified by the chief states, and never became operative. The Brussels International Conference (1874) for the codification of the law and customs of war occupied itself with the Geneva Convention and again drew up a number of articles which were submitted to the interested governments. But, as in the case of the additional articles of 1868, no effect was ever given to them.

At the Peace Conference of 1899 Great Britain withdrew her objections to the application of the convention to maritime warfare, and agreed to the adoption of a special convention “adapting to Maritime warfare the principles of the Geneva Convention.” A voeu was also adopted by the conference expressing the wish that a special conference should be held as soon as possible for the purpose of revising the convention of 1864.

In deference to the above voeu the Swiss government in 1901 sounded the other parties to the convention of 1864 as to whether the time had not come to call the proposed special conference, but the replies received did not give much encouragement and the matter was dropped for the time being. By a circular note of the 17th of February 1903, the Swiss government invited all the states which had signed or adhered to the Geneva Convention to send representatives to a conference to be held at Geneva in the following September. Some governments did not accept the invitation in time and the conference had to be postponed. At the beginning of 1904, there being no apparent obstacle, the Swiss government again invited the powers to send delegates to a conference in the following May. Meanwhile war broke out between Russia and Japan and there was again an adjournment. At length in March 1906 an invitation was accepted by thirty-five states, only Turkey, Salvador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia abstaining and the conference was held at Geneva in July 1906, when a full revised convention was adopted, which now takes the place of that of 1864.[1] The adoption of the new Geneva Convention entailed a revision of the above-mentioned Hague Convention and a new edition of the latter is one of the documents adopted at the Peace Conference of 1907.

The new Geneva Convention consists of thirty-three articles divided into the following chapters, (i.) the wounded and sick; (ii.) medical units and establishments; (iii.) personnel; (iv.) material; (v.) convoys of evacuation; (vi.) the distinctive emblem; (vii.) application and carrying out of the Convention; (viii.) prevention of abuses and infractions; (ix.) general provisions.

The essential parts of the new Hague Convention of 1907 (18th of October) adapting the above conventions to maritime warfare as follows: (N.B. The alterations are in italics. The parts of the older convention of 1899 which have been suppressed are in brackets).

i. Military hospital-ships, that is to say, ships constructed or assigned by states specially and solely for the purpose of assisting the wounded, sick or shipwrecked, and the names of which shall have been communicated to the belligerent powers at the commencement or during the course of hostilities, and in any case before they are employed, shall be respected and cannot be captured while hostilities last.

These ships, moreover, are not on the same footing as men-of-war as regards their stay in a neutral port.

ii. Hospital-ships, equipped wholly or in part at the cost of private individuals or officially-recognized Relief Societies, shall likewise be respected and exempt from capture, provided the belligerent power to whom they belong has given them an official commission and has notified their names to the hostile power at the commencement of or during hostilities, and in any case before they are employed.

These ships should be furnished with a certificate from the competent authorities, declaring that they had been under their control while fitting out and on final departure.

iii. Hospital-ships, equipped wholly or in part at the cost of private individuals or officially-recognized Societies of neutral countries shall be respected and exempt from capture [if the neutral power to whom they belong has given them an official commission and notified their names to the belligerent powers at the commencement of or during hostilities, and in any case before they are employed] on condition that they are placed under the orders of one of the belligerents, with the previous consent of their own Government and with the authorization of the belligerent, and on condition that the latter shall have notified their names to the enemy at the commencement or during the course of hostilities, in any event, before they are employed.

iv. The ships mentioned in Articles i., ii. and iii. shall afford relief and assistance to the wounded, sick and shipwrecked of the belligerents independently of their nationality.

The governments engage not to use these ships for any military purpose.

These ships must not in any way hamper the movements of the combatants.

During and after an engagement they will act at their own risk and peril.

The belligerents will have the right to control and visit them; they can refuse to help them, order them off, make them take a certain course, and put a commissioner on board; they can even detain them, if important circumstances require it.

As far as possible the belligerents shall inscribe in the sailing papers of the hospital-ships the orders they give them.

v. The military hospital-ships shall be distinguished by being painted white outside with a horizontal band of green about a metre and a half in breadth.

The ships mentioned in Articles ii. and iii. shall be distinguished by being painted white outside with a horizontal band of red about a metre and a half in breadth.

The boats of the ships above mentioned, as also small craft which may be used for hospital work, shall be distinguished by similar painting.

All hospital-ships shall make themselves known by hoisting, together with their national flag, the white flag with a red cross provided by the Geneva Convention, and, in addition, if they belong to a neutral State, by hoisting on the mainmast the national flag of the belligerent under whose direction they are placed.

Hospital-ships which, under the terms of Article iv., are detained by the enemy, must lower the national flag of the belligerent under whom they were acting.

The above-mentioned vessels and boats, desiring at night-time to ensure the respect due to them, shall, with the consent of the belligerent whom they are accompanying, take the necessary steps that the special painting denoting them shall be sufficiently conspicuous.

vi. [Neutral merchantmen, yachts or vessels, having, or taking on board, sick, wounded or shipwrecked of the belligerents, cannot be captured for so doing, but they are liable to capture for any violation of neutrality they may have committed.]

The distinctive signs provided by Article v. can only be used, whether in time of peace or in time of war, to protect ships therein mentioned.

vii. In the case of a fight on board a war-ship, the hospitals shall be respected and shall receive as much consideration as possible.

These hospitals and their belongings are subject to the laws of war, but shall not be employed for any other purpose so long as they shall be necessary for the sick and wounded.

Nevertheless, the commander who has them under his orders, may make use of them in case of important military necessity, but he shall first ensure the safety of the sick and wounded on board.

viii. The protection due to hospital-ships and to hospitals on board war-ships shall cease if they are used against the enemy.

The fact that the crew of hospital-ships, and attached to hospitals on war-ships, are armed for the maintenance of order and for the defence of the sick or wounded, and the existence of a radio-telegraphic installation on board, is not considered as a justification for withdrawing the above-mentioned protection.

ix. Belligerents may appeal to the charitable zeal of commanders of neutral merchant vessels, yachts or other craft, to take on board and look after the sick and wounded.

Ships having responded to this appeal, as well as those who have spontaneously taken on board sick, wounded or shipwrecked men, shall have the advantage of a special protection and of certain immunities. In no case shall they be liable to capture on account of such transport; but subject to any promise made to them they are liable to capture for any violation of neutrality they may have committed.

[vii.] x. The religious, medical or hospital staff of any captured ship is inviolable, and its members cannot be made prisoners of war. On leaving the ship they take with them the objects and surgical instruments which are their own private property.

This staff shall continue to discharge its duties while necessary, and can afterwards leave when the commander-in-chief considers it possible.

The belligerents must guarantee to the staff that has fallen into their hands [the enjoyment of their salaries intact] the same allowances and pay as those of persons of the same rank in their own navy.

[viii.] xi. Sailors and soldiers, and other persons officially attached to navies or armies, who are taken on board when sick or wounded, to whatever nation they belong, shall be [protected] respected and looked after by the captors.

xii. Every vessel of war of a belligerent party may claim the return of the wounded, sick or shipwrecked who are on board military hospital-ships, hospital-ships of aid societies or of private individuals, merchant ships, yachts or other craft, whatever be the nationality of these vessels.

xiii. If the wounded, sick or shipwrecked are received on board a neutral ship of war, it shall be provided, as far as possible, that they may take no further part in war operations.

xiv. The shipwrecked, wounded or sick of one of the belligerents who fall into the hands of the other, are prisoners of war. The captor must decide, according to circumstances, if it is best to keep them or send them to a port of his own country, to a neutral port, or even to a hostile port. In the last case, prisoners thus repatriated cannot serve as long as the war lasts.

xv. The shipwrecked, wounded or sick who are landed at a neutral port with the consent of the local authorities, must, failing a contrary arrangement between the neutral State and the belligerents, be guarded by the neutral State, so that they may not be again able to take part in the military operations.

The expenses of hospital treatment and internment shall be borne by the State to which the shipwrecked, wounded or sick belong.  (T. Ba.) 

  1. Another International Conference held in December 1904 at the Hague dealt with the status of hospital-ships in time of war. Great Britain did not take part in this Conference. Her abstention, however, was not owing to any objection of principle, but purely to considerations of domestic legislation.