In 2004 Red Cross Volunteer Valerie Goodwin traveled to Florida. In broken English, her cab driver asked whether she was there for business or pleasure. She responded, “Neither and both. I am here as a volunteer with the Red Cross helping with hurricane recovery.” In that moment they made eye contact in the rear view mirror and the cab driver’s eyes welled up with tears. He then went on to tell Valerie that he was a Prisoner of War (POW) in Serbia and when he had been taken he assumed there was no hope for him. But then he recounted how the International Committee of the Red Cross came to inspect the camp and added his name to their list of detainees. He said “As soon as I was on their list I knew I would live. I just needed to be counted.”
It is individual stories like these that drive home the importance of respect for human dignity and compliance with international humanitarian law. Today, August 22, 2014, marks the 150th anniversary of the first Geneva Convention. More commonly known as the rules of war, this landmark treaty established the basis for humane treatment of wounded soldiers on the battlefield. In the years that followed, two more treaties were adopted covering the ‘Condition of Wounded and Sick at Sea’ and the ‘Treatment of Prisoners of War’. In 1949, in the aftermath of World War II, these three treaties were revised and a fourth treaty was introduced covering the ‘Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War’. Considered the cornerstone of International Humanitarian Law, the Geneva Conventions achieved universal acceptance in 2006, making them the only treaties in international law to be ratified by all nations.
And while many people have heard of these rules in one way or another, many do not know that the creation of the Red Cross movement is at the very heart of these rules. Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, risked her life to care for soldiers on the battlefield during the Civil War and, years later, successfully lobbied the US government to sign the Geneva Convention. But the Geneva Conventions are not just important milestones in international humanitarian law, they are meaningful and relevant to the millions of individuals whose lives are affected by armed conflict.
Today, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the original Geneva Convention, we call on all parties to all conflicts to preserve what it means to be human by complying with the rules of war.