Lesson Plan

Title  Geneva Convention Addresses Human Rights: Changes Made in 1929
Subject  International History / Social Studies
Grade(s)  High School
Standards  CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.4CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2
Number of periods  1 or 2, 45-minute periods, depending on extent of small-group and whole-class discussion.
Author credits  
Keywords  International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva Conventions, human rights

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Essential questions  What are “human rights”? How has treatment of combatants in battle evolved as a result of modern warfare?
Synopsis  This lesson examines the evolution of the Geneva Convention, particularly how modern warfare in World War I created changes in how combatants and civilians should be treated. It would fit well as a between-the-wars lesson.
Standard Alignment(s) used  Common Core English Language Arts Standards (Literacy in History/Social Studies, grades 9-10 and 11-12)
Recommended Teacher Background
Connection to other disciplines
Number of class periods  1 or 2, 45-minute periods, depending on extent of small-group and whole-class discussion.


Objectives Standards adressed
 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1
 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.4


Primary Sources

  •  Excerpts from the Geneva Convention of 1929

Secondary Sources

Related resources




  1. Pre-assessment and activation of prior knowledge: Introduce and/or review with students…
    • the history and purpose of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, including biographical information about Henry Dunant and Clara Barton.
    • main ideas from World War I.

Useful information can be found at the following websites:

http://www.redcross.int/en/history/ (history of Red Cross and Red Crescent movement)
http://www.ifrc.org/en/who-we-are/history/ (history of International Committee of the Red Cross)
http://www.redcross.org/about-us/history (history of American Red Cross)

2. Step by Step:

Day One:

  1. Lead-in/hook: Discuss with students video games that involve combat, battlefields and warfare. Consider some or all of the following questions: Who are killed or wounded in combat video games? What actions in those games, if done in real life, would violate “human rights”? What actions might this include? What rules exist in (real) war for the humane treatment of combatants or civilians? Are those rules applied to video games? Are there civilian casualties in video games? Why or why not? Are rules of war applied to video games? Should rules of war be applied to video games? What might that look and sound like? Could video games be used as a method for informing people about rules of war?
  2. Ask students to listen to and write a short personal reaction to the following 3-minute audio clip from National Public Radio titled, “Red Cross Wants Video Games to Get Real on War Crimes.” http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2013/10/12/232480753/red-cross-wants-video-games-to-get-real-on-war-crimes Ask students to share their reactions.
  3. Inform students:
    • Rules of warfare concerning the humane treatment of wounded combatants became an international issue during the mid-19th century, and culminated in the creation of the Geneva Convention (titled “Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field”) in 1864. Other conventions (agreements) followed, including in the 1949 agreement, which is currently used by 196 signatory countries.
    • (“Convention” is roughly defined as a set of rules agreed upon and upheld by the countries that sign or ratify it.)
    • As indicated by the NPR audio clip, the Geneva Conventions were the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, founded in 1863, in Geneva, Switzerland.
    • The original convention in 1864 was signed immediately by 12 European representatives to the Geneva conference, including France, Prussia, Spain, and the newly formed Italy. Over the next 40 years it was ratified by 57 governments, including the United States in 1882.
    • The various conventions addressed what we might call “human rights” issues – basic rights and responsibilities that all people share – as they specifically relate to war.
  4. Finish Day One with a discussion of what might constitute rules of war. Possible discussion questions: Is “rules of war” an oxymoron – is war, by definition, without rules? If not, who should be protected under rules of war: combatants, civilians, animals, property, the environment? Who should be held accountable for violations: individual perpetrators, military commanders, civilian or military heads of state?

Day Two:

  1. Place students in heterogeneous groups of four or five. Pass out to everyone copies of “Excerpts from the 1929 Geneva Conventions” (Appendix 1). Ask students to take turn reading out loud each article while keeping the questions below in mind. (Encourage students to discuss and possibly look up vocabulary words from the documents while they read.) After reading, ask students to write responses privately to the questions; then discuss the questions in their groups; then discuss as a class:
    • Based on these articles, what should be included in a definition of “human rights” as they relate to war?
    • In support of human rights, what were “belligerents” (armies at war) required to do after battles were fought?
    • The convention addresses armies that abandon or occupy the battlefield after a battle. What were some of the responsibilities of the “losers” and “winners” of a particular battle in supporting human rights?
    • Historically, the Geneva Conventions have been updated to reflect changes in warfare, including the development of advanced technology. Which excerpts from the 1929 document reflect human rights issues raised specifically in World War I? What were the technological (and other) changes in warfare and what human rights problems did they create?

2. Closure – As a between-the-wars lesson:

The Geneva Convention would require additional changes after World War II. A new kind of war horror would occur when Hitler’s Luftwaffe “practiced” terror bombing during the Spanish Civil War. An American veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Boleslaw “Slippery” Sliwon, witnessed the terror bombing. An excerpt from his personal letter to a friend is included in Appendix 2 as a document that could preview World War II.

Treatment of the wounded and dead during war are just one issue in the broad treatment of human rights. What are others? Think about the unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence.

How do we enforce these conventions or laws, nationally? Internationally? What problems are created in enforcement of human rights edicts? (Perhaps discuss the concept of international courts and their legitimacy derived by voluntary support of nations.)


    • Advanced:
    • Students can research changes made to the 1949 Geneva Convention that reflect the impact of World War II and the Holocaust. (The Holocaust is addressed in another Human Rights Lesson on the ALBA education web page. See also a broader, more extensive lesson on the evolution of the Geneva Conventions.)
    • Students can research modern agencies that draw attention to human rights violations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights Action Center, Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
    • Students can research controversial U.S. government activity, including waterboarding and rendition, and whether or not these actions by the U.S. government constitute human rights violations.
    • Students can research the online documents pertaining to the Nuremberg Trials and describe how testimony and legal decisions from the trials might have impacted the 1948 and 1949 documents, including the distinction between “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.”
  • Struggling: Teachers may want to provide time for vocabulary enrichment beforehand. Possible vocabulary words from the documents: belligerent, exigencies, pillage, armistice, chaplains, regimental, infringe.


Summative assessments could include some of the following extended answer prompts:

  1. Describe the purpose of the Geneva Conventions. Provide ___ examples of specific ways that human rights and responsibilities have been addressed by the conventions.
  2. How have changes in warfare created changes in how we define war crimes? (Students who researched the 1949 convention could broaden their analysis to include civilian deaths and the Holocaust.)
  3. How have changes in technology changed how we treat combatants in war?
  4. What problems and solutions to human rights during wartime were created by the invention and utilization of aircraft in war?
  5. Do we need a new convention? What changes in warfare are taking place now that might prompt changes to the Geneva Convention?

Appendix 1:

Excerpts from the 1929 Geneva Conventions

Treatment of the Sick and Wounded:

Art. 1. Officers and soldiers and other persons officially attached to the armed forces who are wounded or sick shall be respected and protected in all circumstances; they shall be treated with humanity and cared for medically, without distinction of nationality, by the belligerent in whose power they may be.
Nevertheless, the belligerent who is compelled to abandon wounded or sick to the enemy, shall, as far as military exigencies permit, leave with them a portion of his medical personnel and material to help with their treatment.

Art. 3. After each engagement the occupant of the field of battle shall take measures to search for the wounded and dead, and to protect them against pillage and maltreatment. Whenever circumstances permit, a local armistice or a suspension of fire shall be arranged to permit the removal of the wounded remaining between the lines.

Art. 6. Mobile medical formations, that is to say, those which are intended to accompany armies in the field, and the fixed establishments of the medical service shall be respected and protected by the belligerents.

Art. 9. The personnel engaged exclusively in the collection, transport and treatment of the wounded and sick, and in the administration of medical formations and establishments, and chaplains attached to armies, shall be respected and protected under all circumstances. If they fall into the hands of the enemy they shall not be treated as prisoners of war.

Treatment of Prisoners of War:

Art. 5. Every prisoner of war is required to declare, if he is interrogated on the subject, his true names and rank, or his regimental number. If he infringes this rule, he exposes himself to a restriction of the privileges accorded to prisoners of his category. No pressure shall be exercised on prisoners to obtain information regarding the situation in their armed forces or their country. Prisoners who refuse to reply may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasantness or disadvantages of any kind whatsoever. If, by reason of his physical or mental condition, a prisoner is incapable of stating his identity, he shall be handed over to the Medical Service.

Art. 18. Aircraft used as means of medical transport shall enjoy the protection of the Convention during the period in which they are reserved exclusively for the evacuation of wounded and sick and the transport of medical personnel and material. They shall be painted white and shall bear, clearly marked, the distinctive emblem prescribed in Article 19 side by side with their national colours, on their lower and upper surfaces. In the absence of special and express permission, flying over the firing line, and over the zone situated in front of clearing or dressing stations, and generally over all enemy territory or territory occupied by the enemy, is prohibited. Medical aircraft shall obey every summons to land. In the event of a landing thus imposed, or of an involuntary landing in enemy territory and territory occupied by the enemy, the wounded and sick, as well as the medical personnel and material, including the aircraft, shall enjoy the privileges of the present Convention. The pilot, mechanics and wireless telegraph operators captured shall be sent back, on condition that they shall be employed until the close of hostilities in the medical service only.

Appendix 2:

Albacete Spain   Nov 28, 1937

Dear Comrade Samuel

Oh you must know that I am in the hospital recovering from a physical breakdown, nervous breakdown, yellow Jaundice, at the present I have a minor touch of remuthism in my left shoulder, and a cold not worth mentioning, but since I began coughing while I began to write this letter, it made me do so. At this beautiful seaside health resort, there are some boys you may know…   I almost forgot to tell you about our bombing we got the other day.  Sitting in a café the other afternoon eating some nice fried fish, there was a loud Booming, I jumped about two feet of my chair and fell on the floor, soon I heard a roar of planes, they flew over the café, with their machine guns strafing the road or street.  Good Christ I say, they’re going to blow hell out of us soon, so they circled around went back to the railroad station, and then there was another Boom Boom. They flew low as hell strafing their machine guns at people who were panic stricken, running for shelter, the town being no military value, was not armed with Antiaircraft batters. Doing their bit of demoralizing the population they flew down where all the hospitals are situated and began bombing the railroad tracks, somehow their poor bombmanship, they missed landing their bombs near an orphanage…   I hope they never come around again.  I have been nervous since my hand shakes like as if I were cold or something.  I was getting over a nervous breakdown from the bombing, I was at the front in a hospital, and now I’m back again, nervous.  What a sensation to be bombed.  When bombs drop near you and the noise grows louder and louder, and the next one it seems like you’re going to be blown to hamburger…

I have figured out a good punishment for people who want war, and those who provoke wars.  First take the bastards and put them in a place surrounded by barbed wire so that they can’t crawl out, then have about 100 airplanes fly over the place for a while, low so these bastards could see the bombs.  Next on the menu have the little pursuit planes come swooping down with their machine guns rattling, with hot lead dropping around this fence, but not hitting any of these guys for that would be too easy for them at once.  After half hour of these little planes, let the bombers come over and drop their load of big bombs but not on the men, no near them so that the noise could be heard, but not touched by shrapnel.  After several hours of bombing, let those bastards out, and I guarantee that they would be cured of their War Mongering or any kind of war propaganda, they all would become pacifists.   This kind of treatment would be the best, because when they send bombers to bomb children, how could a person be a humanitarian, and let bastards like that get away. Give them some of their own medicine.   Many times I went through a village where fascist bombed the people, their faces showed it, sometime I was so mad at the fascists that tears began to run down my cheeks.  Dud told me you wanted to know what I thought of war. Quote Slowen, War is something miserable, that cannot be described on paper, tales of war maybe written, but one must be in war to really know what war is and its effects. Those who start wars are not humans, for war become a place where people forget they are humans and fight with no mercy shown, its either you or I that going to exist or both of us shall die. Unquote that my way of saying just how I feel, but I am sorry to say my emotions sometimes run high with hatred or pity. One day some fascists surrendered one had his arm shot off. He was in pain and was thirsty. Sez he to me, Please give me some water. Sure, I answered and gave him the canteen, he took about two swallows, and hand it back to me, he was afraid to drink more. I knew that he was dry so gave him the canteen and told him to drink all the water. Joy swept his face, he gulped down all the water to the last drop. Thanks comrade he said, tears rolled down cheeks with happiness, they were told by the fascist officers that it meant death and torture to be captured, but after they surrender they were happy that they at last were with the loyalist people. This young boy with his shot off arm was rushed to a hospital in our ambulance…   With a Salud   Boleslaw (Slippery) Sliwon


Appendix 3: