The Geneva Conventions are still relevant — even 70 years after their adoption

Ministry for Foreign Affairs 15.11.2019 14.51
News item

The Finnish Red Cross, together with the Foreign Affairs Committee of Parliament and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, organised a cross-disciplinary seminar in honour of the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. The event was entitled “The humanity of law today and tomorrow”.

Johanna Sumuvuori, State Secretary for Political Affairs at the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, spoke at the seminar on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.

The festive event served as an important reminder of the time 70 years ago, in 1949, when the Nuremberg trials had brought the horrors of the Second World War to the wider public’s knowledge. The world had been shattered and torn apart by the atrocities and immeasurable suffering on the battlefields and in the concentration and prison camps.

In particular, the brutal acts systematically targeted at civilians were unprecedented. This happened at a time when the common intent of mankind was to ensure that the period of conflicts and inhumane acts that had lasted for many years would not recur.

Holding to this common purpose, and with the aim of protecting sustainable peace and humanity, the previous Geneva and Hague Conventions were significantly updated and expanded.

Principles concerning the protection of civilians, the impartiality of medical and assistance activities, limits on the means and methods of warfare, and avoidance of unnecessary suffering were entered in agreements for the first time in history. The Geneva Conventions were revised and expanded by additional protocols in 1977 and 2005, focusing on the protection of civilian populations (Additional Protocols I and II and Additional Protocol III).

The 1949 Geneva Conventions can therefore be seen as a milestone in international humanitarian law and, together with the additional protocols, they form the core of international humanitarian law.

All UN Member States have ratified the Geneva Conventions, which shows that the principles and obligations contained in them are universally accepted. Moreover, many of these rules are considered to be part of customary international humanitarian law, which means that they are binding on States regardless of whether they are parties to the said protocols and agreements or not.

As State Secretary Johanna Sumuvuori pointed out in her speech, the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols are not merely a historic achievement, but their content and principles are also relevant today. Conflicts have not ended in the world – on the contrary. Armed conflicts and wars are raging in different parts of the world even at this very moment.

Conflicts are more and more often in the form of civil war within countries, with the parties involved in them are non-state actors. The changing character of warfare due to the urban nature and technological advances of much modern conflict is also reflected in the effects of war on civilians.  These conflicts always inflict great suffering on civilian populations and the need for humanitarian aid is immense.

The adoption of the Geneva Conventions is an important example of how the international community can work together to achieve something big and significant. On the other hand, as Erkki Tuomioja stressed in his speech, concluding agreements in itself is not enough, but long-term work is needed to implement and enforce the contractual obligations. Keynote speakers at the seminar highlighted the special role played by the Finnish Red Cross in this task and commended the extremely important work it has done.