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Geneva Conventions Protect Civilians, Combatants During Wartime - 2003-03-24

U.S. officials have responded to Iraq's capture of several American troops by demanding that Baghdad follow the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. VOA's Dale Gavlak in Geneva looks at how the conventions came about and what they say.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions established a comprehensive legal framework to protect captured combatants and civilians during armed conflict. The United States, Great Britain and Iraq are among 190 countries that are party to the first four conventions.

The first convention establishes measures to be taken to protect wounded and sick combatants. The second refers to naval warfare. The third deals with the protection of prisoners of war, while the fourth deals with the protection of civilians in times of armed conflict.

The Conventions grew out of the early work of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, a neutral humanitarian organization.

The group's legal advisor, Philip Sperry, says the International Committee of the Red Cross is mandated by the Geneva Conventions to carry out relief activities for victims of armed conflicts.

"Of course we have to request, but the ICRC has rights under the conventions to visit prisoners of war and civilians detained in situations of armed conflict," explained Mr. Sperry.

The Red Cross official said that although there is no timeframe stated, such visits and requests for information about prisoners should be responded to within a reasonable period.

He said the conventions also prohibit the targeting of civilians. Mr. Sperry said he cannot comment on recent reports of Iraqi soldiers wearing civilian clothing over their military uniforms. But he said the Conventions state there must be a clear distinction between military and civilian objects. "If fighters wear civilian clothes, then this distinction becomes impossible, and of course it endangers the civilian population," he said.

Red Cross founder Henri Dunant lobbied hard in the late 1850s for soldiers, regardless of their side, to receive humane treatment while sick or injured on the battlefield. His work led to the adoption of the first Geneva Convention in 1864.

Two additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions were adopted in 1977 and many of their provisions are considered customary international law.