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Geneva Conventions

150 years of humanitarian action

Even wars have laws. First established 150 years ago with the original Geneva Convention, international humanitarian law protects those who are not, or no longer, participating in the hostilities - civilians and wounded, sick or captured fighters. All those taking part in the fighting have a duty to distinguish between combatants and civilians and must not target civilians.

But signing treaties is not enough; all too frequent violations of humanitarian law in conflict have an unacceptable human cost. Today, more than ever, we call upon all parties to conflicts around the world to spare civilians and respect international humanitarian law.

Ten interesting facts about the Geneva Conventions

How much do you know about the Geneva Conventions? Possibly more than you realise. From war films such as The Great Escape you might know that they deal with prisoners of war, from M*A*S*H you may know they've got something to do with the red cross and injured soldiers, and from news reports you'd link them to the rules governing combat and soldiers.

With the 150th anniversary of the First Geneva Convention coming up on 22 August, here are ten other interesting facts about these famous laws to share with your friends:

1. First up, there are actually four Conventions that cover these laws (and three Additional Protocols, but let's leave those for another time).

2. The First Geneva Convention was signed on 22 August 1864 in the Alabama Room of Geneva Town Hall.

3. Twelve states signed it: Baden, Belgium, Denmark, France, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Prussia, Spain, Switzerland, Hesse and Wurtemberg (the last two now part of Germany). The UK signed the original convention in 1865, the USA in 1882, and Germany in 1906.

4. 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.

5. Article 7 states that "a distinctive and uniform flag shall be adopted … a red cross on a white ground."

6. 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:

7. In 1949, the first three Conventions were revised and the Fourth Convention - protecting civilians in times of war - was added.

8. It is all thanks to one Swiss man, Henry Dunant, who founded the ICRC in 1863 and was the driving force behind persuading Switzerland to host the conference to formalise the laws of war.

9. The protective red crescent emblem was first used by the Ottoman Empire in 1876 and officially adopted by the international community as a protective emblem in 1927.

10. The ICRC - the international "guardian" of the laws of war and the emblems -- is still based in Geneva.

11. Bonus fact! In Australia, Australian Red Cross has a mandate to educate the public and key stakeholders about IHL and the correct use of the red cross emblem.

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