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Updated Commentaries bring fresh insights on continued relevance of Geneva Conventions

What is acceptable and what is prohibited in armed conflict? The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 form the foundation of international humanitarian law and provide a framework setting out the answers to that question.

In the 1950s, the ICRC published a set of commentaries on these Conventions, giving practical guidance on their implementation. But to reflect the developments in law and practice since then, we have commissioned a new set of commentaries which seek to reflect the current interpretations of the Conventions. The first instalment, the updated Commentary on the First Convention, is now being published.

Jean-Marie Henckaerts explains more. He is a legal adviser in the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross and head of the ICRC’s project on customary international humanitarian law. 

What’s the main aim of the updated Commentaries?

The main aim of the updated Commentaries is to give people an understanding of the law as it is interpreted today, so that it is applied effectively in today’s armed conflicts. We see this as an important contribution to reaffirming the continued relevance of the Conventions, generating respect for them and strengthening protection for victims caught up in armed conflict. The experience gained in applying and interpreting the Conventions over the last six decades has generated a detailed understanding of how they operate in armed conflicts all over the world and in contexts very different to those that led to their adoption. With this, the new Commentaries go far beyond their first editions from the 1950s, which were largely based on the preparatory work for the Conventions and on the experience of the Second World War.

Can you give an example of issues that the Commentaries clarify?

The Commentaries shed light on many issues, from how the various rules of international humanitarian law apply in the complex conflicts of today, to the obligation Parties have vis-à-vis the wounded and sick. For example, the First Geneva Convention requires the wounded and sick to be protected and respected. But what does that mean in practice? What standard of medical care is required for the treatment of the wounded and sick? How can the wounded and sick be collected and cared for when there are no troops on the ground? The answers to these and other questions have both legal and operational dimensions which the Commentary on the First Convention addresses.

Who do you anticipate will use the Commentaries?

The Commentaries are an essential tool for practitioners like military commanders, officers and lawyers to be able to ensure protection of victims during armed conflict. They will be used to train members of the armed forces, prepare instructions for armed forces and ensure that military orders comply with the law. But they will also be useful for judges who have to apply humanitarian law, including in criminal courts and tribunals where those accused of violating the law may be prosecuted. Other users include lawyers in government, international organizations, the ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as well as academics. We know that the 1950s Commentaries have been useful for them. So we are confident that the updated Commentaries will become an equally important tool, as they provide more nuanced insights and references.

-> Read more on the ICRC website

-> Updated Commentaries of Geneva Conventions

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