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Boyd van Dijk

Mar 1, 2022

Preparing for War: The Making of the 1949 Geneva Conventions

The Making of the 1949 Geneva Conventions

Oxford University Press 2022

The 1949 Geneva Conventions are the most important rules for armed conflict ever formulated. To this day they continue to shape contemporary debates about regulating warfare, but their history is often misunderstood. For most observers, the drafters behind these treaties were primarily motivated by liberal humanitarian principles and the shock of the atrocities of the Second World War. In Preparing for War: The Making of the Geneva Conventions (Oxford University Press, 2022), Dr. Boyd van Dijk “shows how the final text of the 1949 Conventions, far from being an unabashedly liberal blueprint, was the outcome of a series of political struggles among the drafters, many of whom were not liberal and whose ideas changed radically over time. Nor were they merely a product of idealism or even the shock felt in the wake of Hitler’s atrocities. Constructing the Conventions meant outlawing some forms of inhumanity while tolerating others. It concerned a great deal more than simply recognising the shortcomings of Internatinal law as revealed by the experience of the Second World War. In making the Conventions, drafters sought to contest European imperial rule, empower the ICRC, challenge state sovereignty, fight Cold War rivalries, ensure rights during wartime, reinvent the concept of war crimes and prepare for (civil) wars to come.”

Dr. van Dijk argues that to understand the politics and ideas of the Conventions' drafters is to see them less as passive characters responding to past events than as active protagonists trying to shape the future of warfare. In many different ways, they tried to define the contours of future battlefields by deciding who deserved protection and what counted as a legitimate target. Outlawing illegal conduct in wartime did as much to outline the concept of humanized war as to establish the legality of waging war itself.

Using never previously accessed archival materials, the book provides a comprehensive historical account of the Conventions' past and contributes to a deeper understanding of the most important treaty of humanitarian law. The book therefore presents an eye-opening account of the making of international law and offers both historians and legal scholars with detailed information about international law's origins.

This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose doctoral work focused on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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Miranda Melcher

Miranda Melcher (Ph.D., Defense Studies, Kings College, London) studies post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with deep analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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