The Geneva Conventions in the Federal Archives

A century and a half ago, Switzerland became the guarantor of the first Geneva Convention of 1864, embodying the two main elements of its then nascent foreign policy: neutrality and humanitarian tradition. In 1949, the country reiterated its call to create legal standards to regulate armed conflict. This is illustrated by two documents in the archive.

Notification to attend the Geneva Conference by the Federal Council, 6 June 1864

Meeting of the Federal Council at the Geneva Conference, 6 June 1864
In this letter, the Federal Council invited nations to participate in a "General Conference" in Geneva scheduled for 8 August 1864, recalling in its preamble that the first international conference – organised by the "Provisional International Committee of Geneva", the forerunner to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – was held in the same city that previous year.

In a letter dated 8 June 1864, the Federal Council set out its intention to organise an international conference in August of the same year. This conference concluded with the adoption of the first Geneva Convention by 12 states on 22 August 1864 and represents one of the founding moments of international humanitarian law.

In the wake of Henry Dunant
The invitation of the Federal Council stated that the "general congress" of 1864 was made in the wake of Henry Dunant's 1863 initiative and the creation of the Red Cross, indicating that it had been mandated by the "Provisional International Committee of Geneva" (forerunner to the ICRC) to organise an international conference aimed at upholding the emerging principles of humanitarian law as "sanctioned by the law of nations”.

The Federal Council's letter also contained some of the "wishes" expressed during the first conference of 1863 resulting from Henry Dunant's initiative: states are to facilitate emergency access to injured persons ensuring protection and neutrality for ambulances, hospitals and nursing staff in times of war; an "identical and distinctive sign" is to be used by the "health services of all armies involved".

The beginnings of International Geneva
The Federal Council emphasised that Switzerland's neutrality "justified its interest in the war wounded and the measures it proposed to other states to take care of them." In return, the country's humanitarian engagement put the principle of neutrality in a positive light and ensured that the surrounding states accepted it.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Switzerland was still looking for its place in Europe. Its 1848 Constitution confirmed the country's neutrality but agreed that the concept should be brought to life as a means of serving a cause and giving a high degree of credibility to Switzerland's humanitarian engagement.

By organising the 1864 conference in Geneva, the Swiss Confederation also profiled the city as modern – the city of Rousseau and the Enlightenment. Indeed, it is in the Enlightenment period that the concept of the "law of nations" is found: those in power must recognise that humankind, by nature, deserves a fair destiny and the right to exist. Through issuing this document in June 1864 therefore, the Federal Council was clearly announcing the spirit of the Geneva Conventions to come.

Further information on the Federal Council’s decision, 1 April 1949

In 1949, Switzerland occupied an important place in Europe and its expertise in international humanitarian law was widely recognised. After the two World Wars – building on its job of protecting foreign interests and working closely with the Red Cross – Switzerland gained considerable experience in helping victims and protecting prisoners of war.

In 1949, however, it was necessary for the states to take stock of what had not worked during the Second World War and a new international conference was thus called for.

Switzerland very naturally took up the initiative; the political department recalled in its decision of April 1949 that – with the Federal Council's "leading role" in the Geneva Conventions and the country as their depository state – Switzerland had always taken the initiative to convene international conferences concerned with revising the conventions. It further stated that the future conference scheduled for August 1949 must adapt the conventions in line with "modern warfare", which may have referred to Adolf Hitler's concept of "total war" whereby not only the army of a country goes to war but the entire population. To this end, the international conference of August 1949 sought to include the protection of civilians in armed conflict in international law.

Switzerland's political department, forerunner to the FDFA, predicted that, if successful, this conference would "take place among the major international events of our time", arguing that as "guardian of the Geneva Conventions, a neutral power often called upon to protect foreign interests, and home of the Red Cross", Switzerland must make every effort to ensure its success.

Thank you to the Swiss Federal Archives for their cooperation in producing this article.

Last update 26.01.2022

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