photo: American Red Cross


by Emily Esposito

According to a recent American Red Cross Survey, only about half of adults and less than a quarter of young Americans are familiar with the Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Maybe even more surprising, more than half of adults and our nation’s youth think that torturing enemy soldiers is acceptable at least some of the time. And more than a third of Americans (young people included) believe that torturing a captured American soldier is acceptable at least sometimes.

You might ask why IHL should matter to you or if it should matter that most Americans don’t know what IHL is. Americans serving in the military or living abroad could be protected under IHL. The American Red Cross has information and resources to help you understand what IHL is and how it affects you.

What is IHL? IHL is a set of rules that regulates the conduct of armed conflict to protect civilians, aid workers, prisoners of war, and wounded soldiers. Most of these rules are listed in the Geneva Conventions, drafted after WWII and ratified by most countries, including the United States.

Does IHL Matter?  IHL protects people affected by conflict across the globe. While fighting and war on American soil hasn’t taken place in years, that doesn’t mean Americans aren’t immune to conflict and war crimes. Most of us know at least one American soldier who is or could be deployed to fight in a conflict abroad or an American living abroad (think study abroad students, aid workers, diplomats, etc.) that could all be protected under IHL should a conflict erupt.

If armed conflict broke out in your country, civilians not taking part in the conflict (likely your own family) would be protected against violence, would not be taken hostage and could receive aid from a Red Cross society. Do you have family members or friends in the military? Under the Geneva Conventions, wounded soldiers would be given treatment and never tortured.

The U.S., along with many nations around the world, has ratified the Geneva Conventions and many of the subsequent protocols that update the Conventions. Whatever your views on torture or IHL, the U.S. has agreed to abide by certain principles under the Conventions. These principles help to preserve human life and protect civilians around the world. Humanitarian principles are at the core of the Red Cross mission; the Red Cross works to raise awareness of and respect for International Humanitarian Law through education programs and activities. To learn more about IHL, visit the American Red Cross IHL web page.

To volunteer for the Red Cross visit

Emily Esposito is an International and Military Services volunteer with the American Red Cross Connecticut and Rhode Island Region. 


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