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On Aug. 12, the world observed the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, four international agreements that set limits on the conduct of participants in armed conflicts. At first glance, the conventions seem quixotic: How can we apply the rule of law to war itself, where the goal is to bend an adversary to another’s will? If the objective is important enough, do not all means justify the ends? The Geneva Conventions explicitly deny that logic. Remarkably, much of the world seems to agree; almost all governments have accepted most or all of the conventions as binding. They are a victory for justice and the rule of law, and serve as a stepping stone for the extension of those principles into other fields of human endeavor.

The Geneva Conventions are a series of international treaties that were signed between 1869 and 1949. They deal with the treatment of wounded and sick members of armed forces in the field; wounded, sick and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea; the treatment of prisoners of war; and the protection of civilians in times of war. They have something of a checkered beginning: It became apparent during World War II that the first three treaties were not being observed. World leaders, under prodding by the International Red Cross, decided to codify and extend the provisions in an international treaty. A one-week conference in Stockholm in 1948 yielded a document that reiterated the first three conventions and added a fourth, on the protection of civilians. The final version was approved in Geneva a year later. That effort was commemorated this week.

The occasion itself was bittersweet. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan explained that respect for the accords cannot be celebrated “in this final year of the decade in a century of war, genocide and immense suffering.” We can pick any number of places on the globe — the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia — where civilian populations have not been spared; indeed in the 1990s, said Mr. Annan, civilians have become “the very targets of warfare, in campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing.”

At the end of what has been called “the bloodiest century in human history,” it is easy to despair. But immense progress has been made. The U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights both express ideals and continue to provide benchmarks by which we can — and do — measure behavior. Yes, the Geneva Conventions are violated, but not freely. Every government admits their validity, even as it excuses, rationalizes or denies the allegations against it.

Critics — “realists” they prefer to be called — have long argued that moral suasion alone has no force in international affairs. They are wrong, as the growing list of signatories to the various human-rights treaties confirms. No nation can afford to stand outside the accepted norms of international behavior. To take one example, China may continue to suppress dissidents, but the Beijing government makes every possible effort to squash attempts to censure it at the annual U.N. human rights meeting in Geneva. Why? Because the stigma attached to international action is significant.

If that is not enough, there is also last year’s decision to create an International Criminal Court, which will have the authority to prosecute war criminals and perpetrators of genocide and other crimes against humanity. It is a landmark in the effort to extend the rule of law and protect human rights. The new tribunal will provide the institutional authority that the Geneva Conventions have lacked until now.

The pity is that the court’s docket is certain to be full. That leads some to say that it is difficult to see real “progress” in this field. Every new law or treaty is bracketed by news of some new atrocity. War crimes continue to be committed, and injustice will outlive us all.

That may be true, but it does not deny the fact that human rights are better protected than ever before. The incremental approach has gradually shifted the boundaries of what is considered acceptable human behavior. The tenacious support of ideals has, like water against a rock face, eroded the legal and political sanctuaries of a previous era — ask former Chilean strongman Gen. Augusto Pinochet about the power of the human-rights lobby. Josef Stalin once asked how many divisions the pope possessed. Today, the real question is how can we count the crimes that have not been committed. That is the standard by which we can measure the Geneva Conventions and the standard to which we must hold ourselves and our governments in the years ahead.

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