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Reigning in brutality - how one man's outrage led to the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions

The history of the Geneva Conventions tells us how the international community draws the line on brutality.

Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino. Painting by Adolphe Yvon. 1861.
  • Henry Dunant's work led to the Red Cross and conventions on treating prisoners humanely.
  • Four Geneva Conventions defined the rules for prisoners of war, torture, naval and medical personnel and more.
  • Amendments to the agreements reflect the modern world but have not been ratified by all countries.

Is history just a collection of barely-connected events that recur because humans can't really learn to do better or does it have an arc that bends towards progress and a better fate for humanity? One action people have taken that makes it seem like we are moving away from barbaric practices are the four Geneva Conventions – a set of international agreements on rules of conduct during wars, including how to treat prisoners of war and medical personnel humanely. The Conventions are also linked to the creation and work of the International Red Cross.

The first Convention was held in Geneva, Switzerland in 1864. Businessman and activist Henry Dunant, who won the first Nobel Peace Prize, is credited with the movement that led to the event. He was largely inspired by witnessing the horror following the Battle of Solferino in 1859, which involved 300,000 soldiers of French and Austrian armies fighting each other in in Northern Italy. Dunant was incredibly moved by the suffering of 40,000 wounded soldiers resulting from the French army's victory, who were just left on the field because of the absence of adequate facilities, personnel, and agreements that would allow them medical help.

In 1862, he published an account of his impressions called "A Memory of Solferino" ("Un Suouvenir de Solferino"), which called for nations to create trained volunteer relief groups that would treat the wounded on battlefields and provide other humanitarian assistance in war situations. Dunant's advocacy and influence resulted in the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863.

1859 Battle of Solferino.

"Le Petit Journal", Paris, September 1901.

A year later, upon invitation of the Swiss government, sixteen countries sent delegates to Geneva for a conference that resulted in the adoption of the first Geneva Convention which called for "the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field."

The agreement, signed by 12 European nations, was relatively basic and asked for the following, as per Britannica:

  1. the immunity from capture and destruction of all establishments for the treatment of wounded and sick soldiers
  2. the impartial reception and treatment of all combatants
  3. the protection of civilians providing aid to the wounded
  4. the recognition of the Red Cross symbol as a means of identifying persons and equipment covered by the agreement

Henry Dunant, Swiss philanthropist and co-founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross ca. 1850-1860.

A second Geneva Convention in 1906 amended and expanded the original, especially with regards to the principle that the sick and wounded have a neutral status on the battlefield. The so-called Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907 carried over the same principle to maritime warfare and the Navy.

The third convention in 1929 related specifically to POWs. It made it a requirement for the warring parties to treat prisoners of war with humanity, provide information about them, and allow representatives from neutral states to officially visit prison camps.

After that, two of the worst wars ever to happen on this planet took place, rife with horrendous abuses of all written and unspoken agreements. In reaction, the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 restated the principles of the agreements, protecting medical personnel, fighting civilians, banning torture, as well as laying out new rules for the safety of the wounded or shipwrecked in the naval forces. It also safeguarded hospital ships.

American prisoners of war carry their wounded and sick as they begin the Death March on Bataan in April of 1942, during which thousands died. (AP Photo/U.S. Army)

Two additional "protocols" were added to the Conventions in 1977. Protocol I gave more protection to civilians, journalists and military workers during armed conflicts.

Protocol II concerned civil war situations and forbade the taking of hostages, terrorism, "outrages upon personal dignity," collective punishment, executions without due process, and racial, religious and political discrimination.

In the years since, have the Geneva Conventions been successful? Certainly, the world has seen no shortage of regional armed conflicts and terrible abuses. But more than 190 states have become signatories to the 1949 conventions. 174 are on board with Protocol I, and 168 signed on to Protocol II (with the United States being a notable absentee in both cases).

Addition international organizations have arisen as a result of the influence of the Geneva Conventions - war crime tribunals and the International Criminal Court. The Conventions helped create boundaries for acceptable behavior in the international community, ultimately containing brutality.

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Technology & Innovation
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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