The Geneva Conventions apply at times of war and armed conflict to governments who have ratified its terms. The details of applicability are spelled out in Common Articles 2 and 3. The topic of applicability has generated some controversy. When the Geneva Conventions apply, governments must surrender a certain degree of their national sovereignty to comply with international law. These laws may not be entirely harmonious with their national constitution or their cultural values. Despite the advantages offered by the Conventions to individuals, political pressures may cause the governments to be reluctant in accepting its responsibilities.
Common Article 2 relating to International Armed Conflicts
This article states that the Geneva Conventions apply to all cases of international conflict, where at least one of the warring nations have ratified the Conventions. Primarily:
- The Conventions apply to all cases of declared war between signatory nations. This is the original sense of applicability, which predates the 1949 version.
- The Conventions apply to all cases of armed conflict between two or more signatory nations, even in the absence of a declaration of war. This language was added in 1949 to accommodate situations that have all the characteristics of war without the existence of a formal declaration of war, such as a police action.
- The Conventions apply to a signatory nation even if the opposing nation is not a signatory, but only if the opposing nation "accepts and applies the provisions" of the Conventions.
Article 1 of Protocol I further clarifies that armed conflict against colonial domination and foreign occupation also qualifies as an international conflict.
When the criteria of international conflict have been met, the full protections of the Conventions are considered to apply.
Common Article 3 relating to Non-International Armed Conflict
This article states that the certain minimum rules of war also apply to armed conflicts that are not of an international character, but that are contained within the boundaries of a single country. The applicability of this article rests on the interpretation of the term armed conflict. For example it would apply to conflicts between the Government and rebel forces, or between two rebel forces, or to other conflicts that have all the characteristics of war but that are carried out within the confines of a single country. A handful of individuals attacking a police station would not be considered an armed conflict subject to this article, but only subject to the laws of the country in question.
The provisions of the entire Geneva Convention are not applicable in this situation, but only a limited list of provisions contained within the language of Article 3, and additionally within the language of Protocol II. The rationale for the limitation is that many articles would otherwise conflict with the rights of a Sovereign State. When the provisions of this article apply, it states that:
- Persons taking no active part in hostilities, including military persons who have ceased to be active as a result of sickness, injury, or detention, should be treated humanely.
- The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.