How the Revolution of 1848  Enabled the Geneva Conventions
Nina Tannenwald, zvg.

How the Revolution of 1848
Enabled the Geneva Conventions

Lesen Sie die deutsche Version hier.

On June 24, 1859, Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman from Geneva, was traveling to Italy when he happened upon the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino, part of the wars of Italian independence. Forty thousand wounded, dead, and dying Austrian, French and Italian soldiers lay neglected on the battlefield before him. There was no evident attempt to provide care. Dunant was shocked. Horrified by the suffering, he abandoned his plans and spent the next few days organizing the local townspeople to provide medical aid and care to the soldiers.

When he returned to Geneva, he wrote a book about the event, A Memory of Solferino, in which, almost as an afterthought, he called for the creation of a neutral organization that would provide relief to the wounded in war without discrimination. In 1863, Dunant and four other Genevans, one of whom was the famous Guillaume Henri Dufour, the first general of the Swiss Federal State and winner of the “Sonderbundskrieg” in 1847, founded what eventually became the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the world’s first neutral relief organization. A year later, at a conference in the Geneva Town Hall, twelve European states adopted the first “Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field” (1864). It sought to guarantee neutrality for relief organizations to reduce the suffering of war. It also adopted the famous Red Cross symbol, an inverse of the colors of the Swiss flag.

So began Switzerland’s special relationship with the ICRC and the Geneva Conventions on international humanitarian law. The creation of national relief societies soon followed (now known as Red Cross and Red Crescent societies). During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the ICRC began its foundational work providing relief and repatriation assistance to wounded soldiers and compiling lists of prisoners of war. During WWI, the ICRC vigorously protested against the use of chemical weapons and did extensive humanitarian work with prisoners of war, including visiting POW camps to check that prisoners were being held in acceptable conditions of detention and assisting with the repatriation of 425,000 prisoners after the war After the atrocities of WWII, the Conventions were expanded to cover civilians. Today, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Additional Protocols provide the core of the law to protect victims of internal and international armed conflict. Every country in the world is a party. From a tiny organization, the ICRC has expanded today to a staff of 900 in its headquarters in Geneva, with nearly 21,000 employed worldwide in more than 100 countries. It has become the world’s most authoritative humanitarian organization and has won the Nobel Peace Prize three times (in 1917, 1944, and 1963). The Swiss government is a major funder, and the last few presidents of the ICRC have been former Swiss diplomats.

A singularly Swiss marvel

Was it coincidental that Henri Dunant was Swiss and that Switzerland became the incubator of neutral humanitarianism? Could this development have happened in another country? It is possible, but seems unlikely. Three key factors help explain the origins of neutral humanitarianism in Switzerland: Switzerland’s long tradition of neutrality, the liberal Swiss federal constitution after 1848, and the strong Calvinist progressive social values of early 19th century Geneva.

First, it is clear that Swiss neutrality played an important role in shaping the neutrality of the ICRC and establishing Switzerland as the sponsor of the Geneva Conventions. Switzerland has been officially neutral since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when the great powers of Europe recognized that «the neutrality and inviolability of Switzerland, and its independence from all foreign influence, [were] in the true political interests of all of Europe.» In 1867, during the first conference of Red Cross societies, the Conference rejected a French proposal to locate the headquarters in Paris. It recognized that, for the ICRC to effectively play the role of neutral intermediary, the headquarters should be located in a small, neutral country rather than a great power.

Mitarbeiter des Internationalen Komitees vom Roten Kreuz (IKRK) pflegen Verwundete, die durch Bombenangriffe am 1. April 2022 in der ukrainischen Stadt Irpin in der
Region Kiew verletzt wurden. Bild: IKRK.

A second factor is the success of Switzerland’s 1848 liberal constitution. Of the revolutionary uprisings in 1848 that brought upheaval to many European countries, Switzerland’s was the only one where the liberal and national movement succeeded. In Switzerland the 1848 revolution led to the adoption of a new constitution that transformed Switzerland into a liberal, federal state. In contrast to most other European countries, where the forces of conservative reaction suppressed the 1848 uprisings, in Switzerland there was no repressive reaction to the achievements of 1848. Switzerland thus became an island of relative stability in a neighborhood of great powers who, during the 1850s-1870s, fought each other in various wars of state formation that redrew maps.

Finally, the third factor was the Protestant Calvinist culture of Geneva, with its emphasis on social work, improving public welfare, and promoting peace. Social welfare and peace societies were prevalent in Geneva even before 1848. Dunant, born in 1828, grew up in a devout Calvinist family that worked actively on behalf of the poor. He also supported the causes of international arbitration, pacificism and feminism. Dunant framed his appeal for humanitarian relief in terms of Christian morality and the obligations of Christian gentlemen and “civilized nations.” Likewise, his co-founder, Gustave Moynier, also a Calvinist, who later became president of the ICRC, was president of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare and an active supporter of charitable causes. The notion of neutral “relief societies” thus appears as a logical extension of local values.

Modern obstacles to the Convention

These three factors – Swiss neutrality, the 1848 liberal constitution, and Calvinist Geneva – help explain the creation of the Geneva Conventions after 1848. Yet Swiss neutrality and humanitarian neutrality are not the same thing, and these concepts can come into tension. World War II marked the greatest failure of the ICRC, when, in October 1942, it acceded to pressure from the Swiss government not to go public about the Nazi regime’s Holocaust of the Jews. The Swiss government sought to stay neutral in the war and not draw Hitler’s unwelcome attention, but this conflicted with the ICRC’s moral obligation to protect victims of armed conflict. The ICRC was unable to ignore the “national context” of its actions or to remain entirely free from the Swiss government’s influence. Under the political pressures of the war, it betrayed the victims.1

The Geneva Conventions represent a deep faith that the human costs of war can be limited or reduced through law. Is this true? Today, reasons for skepticism about the Conventions’ effectiveness abound. In Sudan, Syria, Mali, Myanmar, Eritrea and Burkina Faso armed forces engaged in civil war appear to deliberately target civilians.2 Most obviously, Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine appears characterized by massive war crimes against civilians and appalling treatment of captured soldiers. What effect do the Geneva Conventions have, then?

Fans of “realpolitik” tend to be skeptical that the laws of war can have any real constraining effect on state behavior. Realists tend to endorse the tragic words of Cicero: “in time of war, the law falls silent.” On the left, historian Samuel Moyn questions whether we should spend so much time trying to make war more humane. Wouldn’t it be more effective to simply engage in less of it?

Less war would surely be desirable. Nevertheless, the rise of the Geneva Conventions represents the assertion that even in wartime there are limits to what counts as acceptable behavior. While enforcement is uneven, the standards have clearly improved outcomes for prisoners and civilians in many wars. In recent decades, new enforcement procedures have been added, including international criminal courts with jurisdiction over International Humanitarian Law, and increasing activity by national courts under principles of universal jurisdiction. The profession of military lawyering has increased, and the UN Human Rights Council has increasingly investigated violations of the laws of war.

The shock and brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine has provided impetus for new efforts at accountability. The wheels of justice turn slowly, but Russian leaders will likely wear the stigma of war crimes, whether indicted or not, for decades. In the real world of international relations, the international community’s tools against a great power are limited, but they are not nothing. It is difficult to see how the world would be better off without the Geneva Conventions or the principle of neutral humanitarianism.

  1. Siehe Jean-Claude Favez: «Das Internationale Rote Kreuz und das Dritte Reich: War der Holocaust aufzuhalten?». Zürich: NZZ Libro, 1989.  

  2. The ban on aggressive war in the UN Charter, Art. 2 applies only to interstate wars.