Geneva Conventions and the Russia-Ukraine War

Contact Counsellor

Geneva Conventions and the Russia-Ukraine War

  • As the Russian military continues to sweep through the country marching on to the capital, Kyiv in a bid to destabilise the seat of Ukrainian government
  • There is growing concern surrounding the issue of human rights violations
  • As the evidence of casualties in the civilian population continues to mount, the world will increasingly look to the Geneva Conventions in this respect

Geneva Conventions guidelines during wartime

  • These are a set of four treaties, formalised in 1949 ,and three additional protocols
  • The first two of which were formalised in 1977 and the third in 2005, which codify widely accepted ethical and legal international standards for humanitarian treatment of those impacted by any ongoing war.
  • The focus of the Conventions is the treatment of non-combatants and prisoners of war, and not the use of conventional or biological and chemical weapons, the use of which is governed respectively by the Hague Conventions and the Geneva Protocol.

First Geneva Convention

  • It protects wounded and sick soldiers on land during war.
  • This convention extends to medical and religious personnel, medical units, and medical transport.
  • The convention has two annexes containing a draft agreement relating to hospital zones and a model identity card for medical and religious personnel.

Second Geneva Convention

  • It protects wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel at sea during war.
  • This convention also extends to hospital ships and medical transports by sea, with specific commentary on the treatment of and protections for their personnel.

Third Geneva Convention

  • It applies to prisoners of war, including a wide range of general protections such as humane treatment, maintenance and equality across prisoners, conditions of captivity, questioning and evacuation of prisoners, transit camps, food, clothing, medicines, hygiene and right to religious, intellectual, and physical activities of prisoners

Fourth Geneva Convention

  • It most imminently applies to the invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces, protects civilians, including those in occupied territory
  • It expounds upon the general protection of populations against certain consequences of war, the conduct of hostilities and the status and treatment of protected persons, distinguishing between the situation of foreigners on the territory of one of the parties to the conflict and that of civilians in occupied territory.
  • This convention also spells out the obligations of the occupying power vis-à-vis the civilian population and outlines detailed provisions on humanitarian relief for populations in occupied territory.

Signatory countries to the convention

  • Conventions have been ratified by 196 states, including all UN member states.
  • The three Protocols have been ratified by 174, 169 and 79 states respectively.

Withdrawal of Russia from Convention

  • Russia withdrew its declaration under Article 90 of Protocol 1 in 2019 perhaps anticipating the possibility of its invading Ukraine in the near future,
  • It states that The High Contracting Parties may at the time of signing, ratifying or acceding to the Protocol, or at any other subsequent time, declare that they recognize ipso facto and without special agreement, in relation to any other High Contracting Party accepting the same obligation, the competence of the International Fact-Finding Commission to enquire into allegations by such other Party, as authorised by this Article

Implication of withdrawal

  • By withdrawing this declaration, Russia has preemptively left itself with the option to refuse access by any international fact-finding missions to Russian entities, individuals or resources that might potentially, in Moscow’s reckoning, find Russia responsible for violations of the Geneva Conventions standards.
  • Further, the four conventions and first two protocols of the Geneva Conventions were ratified by the Soviet Union, not Russia, hence there is a risk of the Russian government of the day disavowing any responsibility under the Conventions in toto.

Steps for potential prosecution under the Conventions

  • Under Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the ICC, it is the ICC that has jurisdiction in respect of war crimes, in particular “when committed as part of a plan or policy or as part of a large-scale commission of such crimes.”
  • Under the statute, ‘war crimes’ refers to Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions… including wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments; wilfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health; etc
  • The statute goes beyond these crimes directed against individuals to include within the definition of ‘war crimes’ broader acts that occur within armed conflict, including intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities, such as attacking or bombarding towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and which are not military objectives; etc

Extent upto which the Geneva Conventions been upheld worldwide

  • Amnesty International, a human rights advocacy group, noted in 2019 that there has been a “blatant disregard for civilian protection and international humanitarian law in armed conflicts where four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are parties-Russia, the U.S., the U.K. and France
  • Amnesty cited the U.S.-led coalition’s bombing of Raqqa in Syria, which left more than 1,600 civilians dead; destruction of civilian infrastructure and lives in Aleppo and Idlib by Russian forces, leading to mass displacement of millions; and the war in Yemen where the Saudi Arabia and the UAE-led coalition, backed by the West, killed and injured thousands of civilians, fuelling a full-blown humanitarian crisis.
  • These cases underscore the grim fact that the Geneva Conventions, even when backed by rulings of the ICC, cannot be enforced by third parties to any conflict.
  • However, they have in the past proved effective at raising global awareness of human rights violations across conflict zones, and in some cases led to sanctions or trade embargoes against the belligerents.