The First Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field, held on 22 August 1864, is the first of four treaties of the Geneva Conventions. It defines “the basis on which rest the rules of international law for the protection of the victims of armed conflicts.”
After the first treaty was adopted in 1864, it was significantly revised and replaced in 1906, 1929, and finally 1949. It is inextricably linked to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is both the instigator for the inception and enforcer of the articles in these conventions.
The 1864 Geneva Convention was instituted at a critical period in European political and military history. Elsewhere, the American Civil War had been raging since 1861, and would ultimately claim between 750,000 and 900,000 lives. Between the fall of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the rise of his nephew in the Italian campaign of 1859, the powers had maintained peace in western Europe.
Yet, with the 1853–1856 conflict in the Crimea, war had returned to Europe, and while those troubles were “in a distant and inaccessible region” northern Italy was “so accessible from all parts of western Europe that it instantly filled with curious observers;” while the bloodshed was not excessive the sight of it was unfamiliar and shocking. Despite its intent of ameliorating the ravages of war, the inception of the 1864 Geneva Convention inaugurated “a renewal of military activity on a large scale, to which the people of western Europe…had not been accustomed since the first Napoleon had been eliminated.”
The movement for an international set of laws governing the treatment and care for the wounded and prisoners of war began when relief activist Henry Dunant witnessed the Battle of Solferino in 1859, fought between French-Piedmontese and Austrian armies in Northern Italy. The subsequent suffering of 40,000 wounded soldiers left on the field due to lack of facilities, personnel, and truces to give them medical aid moved Dunant into action. Upon return to Geneva, Dunant published his account Un Souvenir de Solferino. He urged the calling together of an international conference and soon co-founded with the Swiss lawyer Gustave Moynier, the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), while recognising that it is “primarily the duty and responsibility of a nation to safeguard the health and physical well-being of its own people”, knew there would always, especially in times of war, be a “need for voluntary agencies to supplement…the official agencies charged with these responsibilities in every country.” To ensure that its mission was widely accepted, it required a body of rules to govern its own activities and those of the involved belligerent parties.
Only one year later, the Swiss government invited the governments of all European countries, as well as the United States, Brazil, and Mexico, to attend an official diplomatic conference. Sixteen countries sent a total of twenty-six delegates to Geneva. The meeting was presided over by General Guillaume Henri Dufour. The conference took place in the Alabama room at Geneva’s Hotel de Ville (city hall) on 22 August 1864. The conference adopted the first Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field”. Representatives of 12 states signed the convention:
Grand Duchy of Baden
Kingdom of Belgium
Kingdom of Denmark
Kingdom of Spain
Grand Duchy of Hesse
Kingdom of Italy
Kingdom of the Netherlands
Kingdom of Portugal and the Algarves
Kingdom of Prussia
Kingdom of Württemberg
The United Kingdom of Norway and Sweden signed in December. The United Kingdom signed a year later in 1865. The Grand Duchy of Hesse, the Kingdom of Bavaria and Austria signed in 1866 following the conclusion of the Austro-Prussian War. The United States of America signed in 1882.
The convention “derived its obligatory force from the implied consent of the states which accepted and applied them in the conduct of their military operations.” Despite its basic mandates, listed below, it was successful in effecting significant and rapid reforms. This first effort provided only for:
the immunity from capture and destruction of all establishments for the treatment of wounded and sick soldiers,
the impartial reception and treatment of all combatants,
the protection of civilians providing aid to the wounded, and
the recognition of the Red Cross symbol as a means of identifying persons and equipment covered by the agreement.
The original ten articles of the 1864 treaty have been expanded to the current 64 articles. This lengthy treaty protects soldiers that are hors de combat (out of the battle due to sickness or injury), as well as medical and religious personnel, and civilians in the zone of battle. Among its principal provisions:
Article 12 mandates that wounded and sick soldiers who are out of the battle should be humanely treated, and in particular should not be killed, injured, tortured, or subjected to biological experimentation. This article is the keystone of the treaty, and defines the principles from which most of the treaty is derived, including the obligation to respect medical units and establishments (Chapter III), the personnel entrusted with the care of the wounded (Chapter IV), buildings and material (Chapter V), medical transports (Chapter VI), and the protective sign (Chapter VII).
Article 15 mandates that wounded and sick soldiers should be collected, cared for, and protected, though they may also become prisoners of war.
Article 16 mandates that parties to the conflict should record the identity of the dead and wounded, and transmit this information to the opposing party.
Article 9 allows the International Red Cross “or any other impartial humanitarian organization” to provide protection and relief of wounded and sick soldiers, as well as medical and religious personnel.
Due to significant ambiguities in the articles with certain terms and concepts and even more so to the rapidly developing nature of war and military technology, the original articles had to be revised and expanded, largely at the Second Geneva Conference in 1906 and Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 which extended the articles to maritime warfare. The 1906 version was updated and replaced by the 1929 version when minor modifications were made to it. It was again updated and replaced by the 1949 version, better known as the Final Act of Geneva Conference, 1949.