The Geneva Convention
Though it might be difficult to believe that there are rules for warfare, countries do have to abide by the laws of humanitarian treatment when they go to war. Much of what we know today about wartime law stems from the 1949 Geneva Convention, from which were born a series of agreements that dictated what was considered humane and what was considered unacceptable treatment during conflict. In total, 196 countries ratified these agreements as the wounds of World War II barely began to heal.
One of the main goals of the convention, named for the location in Switzerland, was to ensure that prisoners of war would be treated fairly. Once ratified, all countries who signed were expected to follow the rules.
Too many had felt the blow of previous conflicts that had left many wounded or dead; namely, events such as The Holocaust, in which millions of Jews were killed at the hands of Nazi soldiers in concentration camps; the Rape of Nanking, a mass homicide and mass rape on the part of the Japanese soldiers who infiltrated the then-capital of China, Nanking; the Bataan Death March, in which Japanese soldiers forced Allied prisoners of war along a brutal 60 mile march to a prison camp on the Bataan Peninsula in 1942; and the other documented incidents of horrendous torture and treatment of prisoners.
During the convention, two important series of trials occurred to bring justice for the victims of violence. The Tokyo Trials, which first convened in 1946, were an attempt to hold Japan accountable as war criminals for the violent acts committed during their campaign to take over Southeast Asia and areas in the Pacific Ocean. Japan was seen as the aggressor and therefore in violation of humanitarian rules that the convention sought to create.
The Nuremberg Trials in Germany were held for nearly a full year between 1945 and 1946. The aim of the trials was to prosecute any officials, military personnel, and judicial personnel who had been involved in the Holocaust and the concentration camps. Smaller trials in various cities and zones also took place to ensure justice would be served.
As a result of these trials and the Geneva Convention, Japan was held accountable, as the defendants were convicted of war crimes and punished. After Nuremberg, executions of Nazi war leaders took place. From these trials and the convention, phrases and ideas such as “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” were born.