As government representatives gathered in 1949 for the conference that yielded the Geneva Conventions, the plight of civilians in war was fresh in their memory due to the tragic events of World War II.
Thus, in addition to the three conventions that relate to the protection of sick and wounded soldiers as well as prisoners of war, they adopted the first international treaty devoted to the protection of civilians.
Another major breakthrough at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference in Geneva was that for the first time, governments signed on to international norms for the protection of victims of internal conflicts.
Half a century on, however, flagrant violations of the rules of war continue unabated and millions of people still suffer as a result of armed conflict even though the Geneva Conventions have gained close to universal acceptance, with 188 signatories.
In a Solemn Appeal signed on Thursday at celebrations held in Geneva to mark the 50th anniversary, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other dignitaries called on those involved in armed conflicts and people in a position to influence the latter's course to respect the rules of international humanitarian law and spare civilians the agony of war.
"The Geneva Conventions have for half a century represented humanity's determination to ensure, even in the midst of war, a minimum of respect for human principles," Annan said at the commemoration.
"However, in this final year of the decade in a century of war, genocide and immense suffering, we do not meet in celebration of the respect of these conventions," he said.
"We should not, and cannot believe that the next 50 years will require any less determination and commitment on our part to limit the suffering of civilians in war," Annan added.
Cornelio Sommaruga, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said: "The Geneva Conventions are still relevant because if they did not exist, the door would stand wide open to chaos, barbarity and endless suffering."
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