Protection of Prisoners of War in the International Regime

By Aaron S John


War is something that happens due to many reasons, but the biggest downside of war is the loss of human life. Along with the damage to the property, the war also destroys the land as well as the whole foundation of the country. Hence, often countries try to avoid war. It is the last resort, but we have seen in our history that has been many wars. One of the main issues with war is that the civilians and the prisoners of war are the two that suffer the most. That is why with time, many developed countries have signed various conventions to protect the rights of the prisoners of war. These conventions prevent them talking from killing the prisoners of war as well as committing any such other heinous acts. The main issue here is not with the legislation that has been enacted for the protection of the prisoners of war but how properly it has been implemented. This is because these legislations are implemented by international organizations for example the United Nations. It must be noted that these are organizations or conventions that always need not be followed and cannot be imposed. This intends to present a complete picture of the conditions and the due process that is followed when prisoners of war are captured. This article will also mention how international legislation has been enacted to avoid catastrophes such as killings of civilians as well as its role in reducing wartime sexual violence. Finally, this article also emphasizes the Geneva Convention of 1949 and its role and how it has been amended time and time along with a few other provisions of the treaty that is important while talking about prisoners of war.

Historical Background

To understand the history of prisoners of war, first, we shall understand the historical background of how the concept of war prisoners started. The origins of this can be traced back too many centuries ago, whether it was in slaving or massacring the prisoners to committing rape or shooting civilians. The main idea here is with regards to breaking the country that has been attacked as a talking civilian especially the women and children can lead to a quick and easy win. This has been used countless times in the past as this leads to a very quick and easy win over the enemy country or the country that has been attacked.

Civil wars comparatively are more severe than interstate wars. Though the civil wars are more likely to happen as we have seen their frequency and length are much more. While compared to the interstate war the civil war is also as troublesome as the normal wars. Even in the civil war, there are prisoners of war, and these prisoners will again be passed the round and treated inhumanly. This is done to pressurize the other side. This is a common act that has been seen in almost all civil wars.

Prisoners of War

Prisoners of war usually refer to the person who has been captured by the attacking country. Strictly going by the definition, it is only applied to the members who belong to the organized armed forces. But if you look beyond the strict definition it also includes the other unorganized armed forces civilians who might take up arms against an enemy or any other non-combatants who are associated with the military force. The article for the Geneva Convention has clearly defined who can be recognized as a person of war.

1. Members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces.

2. Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfill the following conditions: 

(a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; 

(b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance; 

(c) that of carrying arms openly;

(d) that of conducting their operations following the laws and customs of war.

From the Geneva Convention, it is quite clear that when a situation of tension arises between two states and the situation escalates to a full-blown war between two or more two Nations or armed forces then both the government will go to war. The Nations will use all the tactics against each other and whoever becomes the victor of the war imposes the conditions on the losing party. Hence the prisoners of war are the direct outcome of the war that happens between different nations or groups of people.

General Protection of Prisoners of War

It shall be understood that prisoners of war are not always part of the war and hence they must be treated decently and must be provided the basic human rights. This is also known as the general protection of prisoners of war and it is stated that a person shall not be treated in a degrading manner. All the health-related issues must also be resolved and dangerous activity, physical mutation, or any other scientific experiments shall be strictly prohibited. Moreover, if the prisoners of war need any medical, dental, or other hospital treatment they shall also be provided with the same. 

With this and prisoners of war, they can be considered as an enemy but they shall not be considered inhuman and shall be honoured and respected at all times. Women and children shall be treated in a very dignified manner and shall be equal to their male counterparts when it comes to the treatment of prisoners of war. They shall also be entitled to use their civil ability when they are captive and those state which has detained the prisoners of war are bound to provide the prisoners with free medical attention as well as maintain basic health safety measures irrespective of the prisoners’ colour, nationality, religious belief or political affiliations the prisoners shall be treated equally.

Specific Provision for Treatment of Prisoners of War in Captivity

All the prisoners of war will be subjected to questions that they shall answer responsibly. These questions include their surnames, first names with their date of birth as well as any military position they were holding finally also disclose any physical or mental condition that they might be suffering from. But no form of physical or mental torture or any other different type form of torture can be used if the prisoner is not answering the questions. They cannot be treated in a discriminated manner.

The officers and prisoners who are of equal status shall be treated concerning their rank and their age all the personal belongings can be left with the prisoners and only firearms such as guns and any other military equipment shall be confiscated.

More about the detaining power, the prisoners cannot be restricted completely. They must be allowed to move around on the premises of the detention camp. They can also be released in certain situations and can be granted parole.

Rights of a Prisoner of War

The third Geneva Convention is the current legal document that deals with all the prisoners of war. One of the main standard features of this convention aside from its key role in armed conflicts is the mentioning of the term โ€œinternal battlesโ€. The convention clearly properly defined this term. It said that the captives include everyone likely to be captured in a conflict situation.

The detaining power is a type of obligation in which the prisoners have to be treated humanely along with kept in a safe environment. This responsibility is with the people who have the prisoner captive. They should be protected from public curiosity along with extensive due process protection that is trial by tribunals that shall be adhering to the norms of justice. The prisoners shall also not be used as test subjects and also scientific experiments are prohibited to be used on them they shall be treated with respect regardless of race nationality, religious beliefs, and political opinions.

During the period of detention, the prisoners shall provide the basic minimum information that they have been asked for, the conditions of the detention camp shall be maintained and the prisoners shall not be kept in an in the human condition and the prisoners shall work in the detention camp but that work should not be dangerous, humiliating or in any way connected with the operations of war

The prisoners shall be allowed to contact their family and friends and any other corresponding privileges shall also be permitted. The procedures must be established for registering complaints against the wrongful treatment of the prisoners in the detention camp along with other penal and disciplinary sanctions shall be followed if the detention camp workers have breached the prescribed convention. The convention also states that the properties of the prisoners shall not be thrown away and when the hostilities have to be sent back to their home country their property and their belonging must also be returned.

The convention develops the concept of protecting power this means that both the countries have mutually decided that there shall be no violation of the basic set rules and all the prisoners of war shall be treated in a dignified manner. If there seems to be a violation then a neutral party can overlook and determine the condition and if there is a violation of set rules then the parties to the conventions are compelled to not repeat this. 

Article 4 of the Geneva Convention and Article 44 of additional protocol I are provides a special type of protection and care. This particular identity and status are recognized because the combatants are operating in the best interest of their particular country and hence they are entitled to the protection. Once they are no longer in the situation of conflict the prisoners of war shall be returned to their home country. The treatment of prisoners of war is also governed by a provision mentioned under the international humanitarian law and the prisoners of war shall be treated as humanly as possible along with a decent place for shelter and adequate food, clothing, and medical care shall be provided for the same. Furthermore, the Geneva Convention IIIโ€™s 143 Article discusses the discipline, entertainment, and criminal trial rules


Geneva Convention is just one of the conventions which are followed when discussing the prisoners of war. There is much other legislation that is present and is being followed by many countries. These have been signed by many countries but the main drawback of these conventions or treaties is that often none of these conventions are imposed. It means that a country is not bound to follow them and hence the treaty or the conventions do not add much value to it. A country can easily take them for granted for example- organizations like the UN will be taken seriously as it is not legally imposing. Time and time, we have seen that rather than taking a proper stand the UN chooses to act like a coward and give out statements that are completely false or is made to cater only to a particular country in turn being completely biased. It is hard to follow certain rules and regulations that are set out by an organization that itself does not practice what it preaches. This said, the Geneva Convention and the United Nations do play a very important role and it is the pivotal organization and convention while dealing with the prisoners of war. This said the conventions and the treaties are very important for the peacekeeping of the states in a conflict. Following these conventions have assured one thing, that is some level of accountability is present now as counties have a document that is present for them to follow and abide by it. 

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