Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 2016 
Foreword by Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross
When the original Commentary on the First Geneva Convention was written in 1952, the horrors of the Second World War were still fresh in people’s memory, but so was the humanitarian spirit that prevailed at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference and that made the adoption of the Geneva Conventions possible. More than sixty years later, we find ourselves confronted with a similar contradiction.
On the one hand, we are witnessing an increasing fragmentation and complexity in today’s armed conflicts, which are often characterized by disregard for the law. The misery they engender – the suffering of children, the despair of families trapped in sieges or forced from their homes, the abuse of the wounded and sick – is brought daily to our attention through different media channels. On the other hand, the community of States has agreed on a stronger and more comprehensive normative legal framework than ever before. We know that the values that found expression in the Geneva Conventions have become an essential part of our common heritage of humanity, as growing numbers of people around the world share a moral and legal conviction in them.
These contradicting realities challenge us to act: to react to the suffering and violations of the law, and to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
In these efforts, it is part of the ICRC’s role and mandate to work towards a common understanding of international humanitarian law through engagement with all stakeholders, including political and religious leaders, key opinion and policymakers, academic circles, the judiciary and, last but not least, weapon bearers.
With this updated Commentary on the First Geneva Convention, the ICRC presents a new tool for practitioners and scholars, as part of our joint endeavour to close the gap between the law as it stands and the law as it is applied on the ground.
We know that the first editions of the Commentaries on the four Geneva Conventions have been useful for military and civilian practitioners as well as for judges and academics. A lot of time has passed since the first editions were published, and we have gained a great deal of experience in applying and interpreting the Conventions in contexts very different from those that led to their adoption. This is why, five years ago, the ICRC committed itself to the monumental task of updating all the existing Commentaries and of preparing new guidance on the basis of a variety of sources, including interpretations by States and courts over the past decades. With the publication of the first instalment, the Commentary on the First Convention, we have reached the first milestone.
The ICRC is in a unique position to oversee the updating of the Commentaries. The organization combines the perspectives of law and operations, and the updated Commentaries benefit from the input of colleagues representing these aspects of our work. Equally importantly, the updated Commentary was opened to unprecedented external input from a global network of scholars and practitioners, who drafted commentaries on specific articles of the Convention, reviewed all the drafts and gave advice. The final text is thus the result of a collaborative process.
The new Commentary provides guidance on and contextualization of the Convention’s rules. It presents the ICRC’s interpretation of the law, but it also indicates the main diverging views and issues requiring further discussion and clarification. The ICRC will duly take this updated Commentary into account in its daily work, while being aware that practice and interpretations may evolve over time.
The ICRC expresses its gratitude to the experts who gave freely of their time and expertise, in particular the external contributors and peer reviewers. It also thanks the members of the Editorial Committee, the project team and other staff members who brought the updated Commentary to fruition.
In presenting this volume to the States party to the Geneva Conventions, to National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other humanitarian organizations, to judges and scholars and to other interested parties, the ICRC sincerely hopes that this Commentary, along with others to come in the years ahead, will clarify the meaning and significance of the Geneva Conventions and help to ensure greater protection for war victims.