Intended for healthcare professionals


Medicine and international humanitarian law

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 14 August 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:393

Law provides norms that must guide doctors in war and peace

  1. Jennifer Leaning, senior research fellow
  1. Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

    August 1999 marks the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. This text, formed by combining the three previous conventions of 1864, 1906, 1929 and adding a fourth in 1949, imposes constraints on the conduct of war. It binds its signatories—who are nation states—to a tight set of obligations regarding the care of the wounded, treatment of servicemen lost at sea, management of prisoners of war, and protection of civilians. 1999 also marks the 100th anniversary of the Hague Convention of 1899, a pivotal document in a long series seeking to limit methods of war and prohibit certain weapons. These two bodies of law, of Geneva and of the Hague, form the cornerstone of international humanitarian law—the law relating to the conduct of individuals and nations in wartime.1

    This anniversary year follows by only one year the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the formative document in the modern field of human rights. The declaration establishes a set of principles regarding the state's relationship to individuals and communities—for example, that no one should be held in slavery and that everyone has a right to social security and education. It has served as the basis for the growing number of legally binding covenants, such as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that contribute to that body of international law that is thought to apply to states in times of peace.2 The occurrence of these anniversaries this year offers the BMJ the opportunity to explore in this special issue a number of ethical and policy dilemmas that face medicine and science when issues of moral choice arise …

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