Turcotte on van Dijk, 'Preparing for War: The Making of the 1949 Geneva Conventions'

van Dijk, Boyd. Preparing for War: The Making of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. 400 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 9780198868071.

Reviewed by Jean-Michel Turcotte (Directorate of History and Heritage/Canadian Department of National Defence in Ottawa)
Published on H-War (August, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58580

The 1949 Geneva Conventions are among the most well-known international treaties regulating the practice of war ratified at present by 194 states.[1] More than seventy years after their adoption and revised with additional protocols in 1977 and 2005, the conventions refer to the concept of “international humanitarian law” (IHL), also known as the laws of war. The Geneva Conventions actually contain four conventions aiming to “humanize warfare” by regulating the treatment of wounded and sick soldiers on land and sea warfare, of prisoners of war, and of civilians. In addition, the conventions include a common article, known as the Common Article 3, making the law applicable to non-international armed conflicts. This legislation is also deeply connected with the most well-known international humanitarian wartime actor, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), often described as the “guardian of the conventions” (p. 310).[2] With the current cases of armed conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, Africa, and Asia, IHL has remained particularly central in our understanding of the phenomena of war in terms of international law and humanity. Because of the numerous violations, violence, and atrocities committed in various conflicts, IHL is also contested.[3] As the recent book by Boyd van Dijk, Preparing for War, shows, many current debates regarding the Geneva Conventions were already well present during their shaping from 1945 to 1949. The fascinating and complex history of the construction of the conventions is the object of his remarkable research.

Despite a substantial historiography, the history of the Geneva Conventions has been largely written by political scientists, international lawyers, members of the ICRC, and, of course, drafters of the conventions. According to Van Dijk, scholarship since the 1950s has contributed to producing a dominant narrative that idealizes the construction of the convention as a “universal moment” and a particularly positive, inclusive, and depoliticized process based on “Western liberal values” (p. 308). As the book shows, however, the shaping of IHL is a far more complicated story. Based on deep and meticulous research in archives, but also on strong engagement with existing literature, the book argues that the 1949 Geneva Conventions were the product of intense political debates and struggles among the major drafting powers (United Stated, Soviet Union, Britain, and France) and the ICRC in the context of Cold War rivalries and decolonization, which shaped the post-1945 new international legal order. Van Dijk’s approach could be seen as a mixture of historical analysis, political and law theories, and postcolonial studies, which make the contribution of this book particularly impressive and rich.

To debunk the popular mythology surrounding the Geneva Conventions, the book examines humanitarian lawmaking as a dynamic process and sets the formulation and revision of the Geneva Conventions in a global political context. Lawmaking in 1949 was a contingent process, reflecting the distinct political, diplomatic, and military agendas of the era. For instance, while discussing “universal” humane conditions in warfare, many drafters were also preserving their Cold War and colonial interests. Moreover, Preparing for War suggests that drafters were much more influenced by the anticipation of future wars, especially with the Soviet Union, than the “lessons” of the past, notably the Second World War. The complex and controversial international efforts to humanize warfare were deeply influenced by “ideas, political interests, perceptions and expectations about what was to come,” such as colonial wars, civilian and partisan warfare, and nuclear bombing (p. 6). Following this line of arguments, the 1949 Geneva Conventions represent more a turning point and a specific moment in the history of the codification of warfare than a reflection on past armed conflicts. According to Van Dijk, the complex post-1945 international discussion that brought the adoption of the conventions in August 1949 clashed with the long historical development of the concept of "human warfare" since the nineteenth century, and only the conjuncture of this short period can fully explain why the drafters accepted some articles but rejected others.

By looking in detail at legal and political debates, the book shows the contrasting arguments among drafters on the meaning of humanity in armed conflicts. Complex negotiations focused on who should be protected, who could be considered as a victim, what violence could be accepted on the battlefield, and how to enforce the conventions and by whom. Debates on the Geneva Conventions became thus part of a much broader discussion entangling international law, politics, humanity, and armed conflicts. The construction of the conventions also provides a new regard on the East-West Cold War dynamic, which was sometimes blurred in this process as the Soviet Union surprisingly cooperated and took an active role on different issues. In the case of the ICRC, the humanitarian organization faced important political dilemmas to keep all major powers, afraid of losing state sovereignty, engaged in the drafting.

The book exposes with a careful minutia the contingencies of the negotiations and then explains why and how the different parties involved finally adopted the conventions. By doing this, Van Dijk is also “redrawing alternative drafting routes and reconstructing drafters’ politics” (p. 24). As he describes, drafters were a large and heterogeneous group of state and non-state actors considered as experts with various military, legal, colonial, humanitarian, intellectual, and diplomatic backgrounds. Many of them changed their opinions and positions during the sinuous drafting process. The outcome of their work—the adoption of four conventions—was thus largely influenced by the entangled nature of their capitalist, communist, colonialist, imperialist, anti-imperialist, and human rights interests. The nuanced picture addressed by Van Dijk shows the confusion, miscalculations, amateurism, personal rivalries, and errors of drafters but also some ingenuity, courage, brilliance, and heroism in their work.

Preparing for War is divided into six chapters. Rather than analyzing the whole content of the conventions, which has 429 articles, Van Dijk examines specific aspects, which, according to him, were at the center of debates not only in 1949 but also in the longer process of forging the laws of war: regulation of civil and colonial wars, restrictions on air-nuclear warfare and blockade, protection of civilians, the matter of partisan warfare, and enforcement of the agreements. Every chapter contains an introductory discussion, a historical part explaining the origins and evolution of the chapter’s topic, analysis, and a wrapping-up conclusion. The structure of the book is particularly useful to follow the author’s arguments and examination of sources. The first chapter explores the road to the Geneva Conventions from 1945 to 1949 and introduces the actors involved. Before the end of World War II, the ICRC was already calling for revising the 1929 Geneva Convention, which led to an important experts’ conference in 1947. The following two chapters examine the complicated genealogy of the civilian convention and the Common Article 3. Next, Van Dijk explores the micro-case of how drafting powers negotiated the legal concept of “irregular” combatant. The last two parts of the book focus on blockade and air bombing as well as the shaping of an eventual system of enforcement for the conventions. All these points reveal the particularly complex context in which the drafters worked, considering multiple, sometimes contradictory, interests.

By reconstructing complex debates surrounding multiple legal definitions, terms, and concepts involved in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, Van Dijk offers an innovative analysis of the laws of war. A fine scholarly work based on a doctoral thesis, the book is an enthralling, well-written work. The numerous arguments discussed, will, however, remain difficult to grasp for a nonspecialist readership. Although the meticulous theoretical and conceptual approach is a major contribution, the analysis does not help to democratize debates on IHL outside of academic legal scholarship. Considering that the “devil is in the detail,” as stated by the author, the great attention and careful details on political debates could leave the reader confused about the broad picture (p. 99). The book gives the impression that the shaping of the conventions resulted mainly from disagreements and political struggle; however, many articles of the conventions, in fact, were the object of important consensus among the drafters. Here the choice of the author to focus on more controversial aspects of the Geneva Conventions may not reflect the whole process of forging the laws of war.

Considering the large emphasis put on major states and the ICRC, readers may also wonder about the impact of other actors on the broad environment surrounding the shaping of IHL, such as humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), religious groups, transnational social movements, private lobbyists, and, more notably, media, as in the case of The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 examined by Maarjte Abbenhuis in The Hague Conferences and International Politics, 1898-1915 (2018). Finally, one of the main arguments of the book criticizing longer historical perspectives used by scholars to understand the 1949 Geneva Conventions will raise further questions about the nature of the development of IHL: will this conjunctural approach also apply to other articles of the four conventions not discussed in the book as well as to previous international legislation, such as the 1906 and 1929 conventions? Despite these minor remarks, Preparing for War remains a remarkable accomplishment, which will open new directions to historical research on the Geneva Conventions. The book is highly recommended reading for anyone interest in the history of IHL.


[1]. "The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Their Additional Protocols," International Committee of the Red Cross, October 29, 2010, https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/war-and-law/treaties-customary-law/geneva-conventions/overview-geneva-conventions.htm.

[2]. "The ICRC's Mandate and Mission," International Committee of the Red Cross, accessed February 21, 2023, https://www.icrc.org/en/mandate-and-mission.

[3]. "The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Their Additional Protocols," International Committee of the Red Cross, January 1, 2014, https://www.icrc.org/en/war-and-law/treaties-customary-law/geneva-conventions.

Citation: Jean-Michel Turcotte. Review of van Dijk, Boyd. Preparing for War: The Making of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58580

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