The first of the Geneva Conventions were negotiated and accepted in the nineteenth century to establish basic standards for the humane conduct of war. The first Geneva Convention, adopted in 1864 and in concert with the founding of the International Committee for the Red Cross, “provided for the neutrality of ambulance and military hospitals, the non-belligerent status of persons who aid the wounded, and sick soldiers of any nationality, the return of prisoners to their country if they are incapable of serving, and the adoption of a white flag with a red cross as the symbol of neutrality”(Politics and Economy: The Geneva Conventions, 2004).
Subsequent Geneva Conventions drew upon The Hague Conventions that addressed the use of inhumane forms of weaponry, such as gases that cause death by asphyxiation and expanding bullets in 1899, and poison gas and certain methods of biological warfare in 1925 following World War I (A Brief History of the Laws of War, n.d.).
The end of the Second World War led to the updating of the four primary conventions, which deal with the wounded and sick on land (Convention I); the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked on sea (Convention II); treatment of prisoners of war (Convention III); and protection of civilians in wartime (Convention IV). An additional protocol that entered into force in 1977 brought civil conflicts within the scope of the Geneva Conventions (A Brief History of the Laws of War, n.d.)(Politics and Economy: The Geneva Conventions, 2004).
For the purposes of this Issue in Depth, the important thing to note about the Geneva Conventions is the strict prohibition against torture. Convention I outlaws torture against those who are not actively participating in a military conflict, including soldiers who have surrendered the sick and the wounded (Convention (I), 1949). Convention II reiterates these protections with regard to those involved in maritime warfare (Convention (II), 1949). Convention III deals with prisoners of war, and bans physical and mental torture for the purposes of information collection or punishment (Convention (III), 1949). Convention IV makes clear that civilians are protected as well as soldiers from inhumane treatment and torture (Convention (IV), 1949).
Taken together, these Conventions established that certain activities or forms of treatment violated fundamental notions of human dignity, even in the most extreme of situations: armed conflict. Nations accepted the Conventions and the restrictions they imposed because these ensured their own people would be humanely treated by the enemy. Further international agreements would extend the reach of protection of human dignity beyond the battlefield.
For the full texts of the Geneva Conventions, see: http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/WebCONVFULL!OpenView.