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Prisoner of war

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Soldiers from India, prisoners of Germany in World War I

A prisoner of war (short form: POW) is a non-combatant who has been captured or surrendered by the forces of the enemy, during an armed conflict. In past centuries, prisoners had no rights. They were usually killed or forced to be slaves.[1] Nowadays prisoners of war have rights that are stated in the Geneva Conventions and other laws of war.

Rights[change | change source]

The Third Geneva Convention gives prisoners of war many different rights. Here are some examples:[2][3]

POWs have the right to get packages, like this British Red Cross parcel from World War II
  • They must be treated decently, with respect
  • They must be allowed to tell their families and the International Committee of the Red Cross that they are a POW
  • They have the right to communicate with their families, and get packages
  • They have the right to keep their clothing, eating utensils, and personal things
  • They must be given adequate food, clothing, housing, and medical attention
  • If their captors make them work, POWs must be paid for the work they do
  • If they are going to be charged with a crime, they must be given a trial

If they are very sick or hurt, prisoners of war have the right to be let go. After a war ends, all prisoners must be let go quickly.[2]

Prisoners of war also have the right NOT to:[2][3]

  • Give their captors any information, except for their name, age, rank, and service number (a military identification number)
  • Have their money or valuable things stolen
  • Do forced labor, military work, or work that is dangerous, unhealthy, or degrading

Not every prisoner gets these rights[change | change source]

Not all people who are caught while fighting wars are "prisoners of war." The Third Geneva Convention has a strict definition of what a prisoner of war is. For example, it says that to be "prisoners of war," soldiers must:[2]

  • Wear uniforms or marks on their clothes to make it clear they are soldiers
  • Have some sign (like a flag) that shows they are soldiers from a distance
  • Carry their weapons out in the open, where they can be seen
  • Follow the laws of war
Because they are not POWs under the Geneva Conventions, inmates at Guantánamo Bay have not gotten the rights POWs would

According to the Geneva Conventions, if soldiers do not meet these requirements, they are not "prisoners of war." They are "unlawful combatants" (which means "people who fight in ways that are against the law). This means they do NOT have the rights that are listed in the Geneva Conventions.[2]

This caused controversy in the early 21st century. For example, in June 2002, the United States was fighting the War in Afghanistan. The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, announced that the people the U.S. had captured were "unlawful combatants [who] do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention[s]."[4] The U.S. said these people were unlawful combatants, not prisoners of war, because:[4]

  • They did not wear clothing that made them look any different than regular civilians
  • They did not organize themselves into groups with a chain of command
  • They did not follow the laws of war (because they gave support to Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization)

The U.S. brought some of these people to a prison in Guantánamo Bay. Because they were enemy combatants, the inmates at Guantánamo did not get the rights that the Geneva Conventions give to prisoners of war.[5]

War crimes against prisoners of war[change | change source]

When a country, or a group of people, does not give prisoners of war their rights, they are committing a war crime. However, punishing those war crimes has not always been easy.

A group of some 25 naked, severely malnutritioned Soviet prisoners of war standing in three rows against a wooden wall.
The Nuremberg Trials punished Nazis for starving, torturing, and murdering many Soviet POWs, like these, in concentration camps
A German general as a prisoner of war with American military police during World War II

Punishing crimes[change | change source]

The Geneva Convention lists the rights that prisoners of war have. However, there is nothing in the Geneva Convention that says how people should be punished when they do not give prisoners of war these rights.[2]

In the past, when a country broke the Geneva Convention by not giving prisoners of war their rights, many different things might happen. For example, after World War II ended, the countries that won the war set up military tribunals called the Nuremberg Trials and the Tokyo Trials. At these trials, military leaders from Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan were tried for crimes against prisoners of war (and many other things). Many of them were convicted and sentenced to death or to life in prison.[6]

However, at other times, crimes against prisoners of war might be tried in the same country where the crimes happened. This might happen before or after the war ended. Sometimes crimes against prisoners of war were not punished at all.[2]

The International Criminal Court[change | change source]

In 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was created to look into war crimes around the world, and punish people for them, if possible.[7]

The ICC has a long list of crimes that are defined as war crimes. Some war crimes against prisoners of war are:[8]

If a country, or a group of people, commit a war crime against prisoners of war, the ICC can put them on trial and punish them if they are found guilty.

Photo gallery[change | change source]

Before the 20th century[change | change source]

20th century[change | change source]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. The telegram says: "Based on information received through the Provost Marshal General records of the War Department have been amended to show your son Private First Class Alton L Hoover a prisoner of war of the German government Any further information received will be furnished by the Provost Marshal General ULIO The Adjutant General 806A." (Telegrams were written without any punctuation.)

References[change | change source]

  1. Levie, Howard S. (1997). "Enforcing the Third Geneva Convention on the Humanitarian Treatment of Prisoners of War" (reprinted from The United States Air Force Academy Journal of Legal Studies, (7) 37)". In Michael N. Schmitt, L.C. Green (ed.). Levie on the Law of War: International Law Studies, Volume 70. United States Naval War College. pp. 459–467. ISBN 978-9997904010.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protections of Victims of War (August 12, 1949). "Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War" (PDF). Retrieved March 5, 2016.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Geneva Convention". Peace Pledge Union. Retrieved March 4, 2016.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Borelli, Silvia (2004). Enforcing International Law Norms Against Terrorism (Studies in National Law, Volume IV). Hart Publishing. p. 42. ISBN 978-1841134307.
  5. Chlopak E 2002. "Dealing with the Detainees at Guantánamo Bay: Humanitarian and Human Rights Obligations under the Geneva Conventions". Human Rights Brief. 9 (3). American University Washington College of Law: 6–9, 13. Retrieved March 5, 2016.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  6. Penrose, Mary Margaret. "War Crime". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved March 4, 2016.
  7. "About the Court". International Criminal Court. Archived from the original on April 4, 2016. Retrieved March 4, 2016.
  8. International Criminal Court (2011). Elements of Crimes (PDF). The Hague, Netherlands: PrintPartners Ipskamp. pp. 1–44. ISBN 978-92-9227-232-6. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-09. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  9. Sale, Kirkpatrick (1992). "The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy." Papermac. p. 155. ISBN 0-333-57479-6
  10. López de Gemara, Francisco (1552). Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary. English translation by Lesley Byrd Simpson (1964). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 207-08. ISBN 978-0520004917
  11. "The Katyn Controversy: Stalin's Killing Field". Archived from the original on 2007-05-09.
  12. Olson, John E. (1985). O'Donell: Andersonville of the Pacific. John E. Olson. ISBN 978-9996986208.
  13. Office of the Provost Marshal General (November 19, 1945). "Report on American Prisoners of War Interned by the Japanese in the Philippines". Office of the Provost Marshal General.
  14. "Great Escape". Nova (PBS). Season 31. Episode 582. 2004-11-16.
  15. Andrews, Allen (1976). Exemplary Justice. Corgi Books. pp. 56–57. ISBN 0-552-10800-6.
  16. Appleman, Roy E. (1998). South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu: United States Army in the Korean War. Department of the Army. p. 349. ISBN 978-0-16-001918-0.