ROME – Often an outspoken champion for the protection of the most vulnerable, Pope Francis on Sunday issued an appeal for the international community to adhere to legal protections for civilians and prisoners of war outlined in the Geneva Conventions, the 70th anniversary of which falls on Monday.

Speaking to pilgrims during his August 11 Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square, Francis called the conventions “important international legal instruments which impose limits on the use of force, and which are aimed at protecting civilians and prisoners in time of war.”

Drawn up in 1949, they comprise four treaties and three additional protocols which establish standards of international law for humanitarian treatment during times of war, covering the armed forces both on land and at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians.

The stipulations apply only in times of armed conflict and seek to protect people who are not or are no longer taking part in hostilities, such as the sick and wounded of armed forces on the field, shipwrecked members of armed conflicts at sea, prisoners of war, civilians and refugees.

The Holy See is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, and frequently cites them in appeals for humanitarian corridors, protection of civilian populations and the treatment of POWs, among other things.

Most recently, Francis has cited the Geneva Conventions in calling for a halt to bombings of civilian populations in Syria by Russia and Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. In Syria’s ongoing civil war, hospitals and civilian neighborhoods have been regular targets of rockets and shelling.

In his Angelus comments, the pope prayed that the anniversary would “make states increasingly aware of the indispensable need to protect the life and dignity of victims of armed conflicts.”

“All are required to observe the limits imposed by international law, protecting unarmed populations and civil structures, especially hospitals, places of worship, and refugee camps,” he said, adding, “let us not forget that war and terrorism are always a serious loss for humanity.”

In an impromptu flourish not in his prepared text, Francis added, “they are the great defeat of humanity.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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