Prisoners of War

prisoner of war

prisoner of war, in international law, person captured by a belligerent while fighting in the military. International law includes rules on the treatment of prisoners of war but extends protection only to combatants. This excludes civilians who engage in hostilities (by international law they are war criminals; see war crimes) and forces that do not observe conventional requirements for combatants (see war, laws of).

Historical Attitudes toward Prisoners of War

Attitudes toward prisoners of war have changed over time. Originally slaughtered, captives were later considered war booty. The captor still held life-and-death power, but it became more useful to make slaves of the prisoners. In feudal Europe the nobles were ransomed, and the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary States generally ransomed their Christian captives.

The basis of the modern treatment of prisoners of war was stated by Montesquieu in De l'esprit des lois and by J. J. Rousseau in his Social Contract; both held that the right of the captor over the prisoner was limited to preventing him from taking up arms again and ceased altogether with the end of hostilities. Their view was elaborated by Emerich de Vattel. During the American Civil War, Francis Lieber drew up the first systematic, written regulations on the treatment of prisoners of war.

The first international convention on prisoners of war was signed at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899. It was widened by the Hague Convention of 1907. These rules proved insufficient in World War I, and the International Red Cross proposed a more complete code.

The 1929 Geneva Convention

In 1929 the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was signed by 47 governments. Chief among the nations that did not adhere to the Geneva Convention of 1929 were Japan and the USSR. Japan, however, gave a qualified promise (1942) to abide by the Geneva rules, and the USSR announced (1941) that it would observe the terms of the Hague Convention of 1907, which did not provide (as does the Geneva Convention) for neutral inspection of prison camps, for the exchange of prisoners' names, and for correspondence with prisoners.

According to the Geneva Convention no prisoner of war could be forced to disclose to his captor any information other than his identity (i.e., his name and rank, but not his military unit, home town, or address of relatives). Every prisoner of war was entitled to adequate food and medical care and had the right to exchange correspondence and receive parcels. He was required to observe ordinary military discipline and courtesy, but he could attempt to escape at his own risk. Once recaptured, he was not to be punished for his attempt. Officers were to receive pay either according to the pay scale of their own country or to that of their captor, whichever was less; they could not be required to work. Enlisted men might be required to work for pay, but the nature and location of their work were not to expose them to danger, and in no case could they be required to perform work directly related to military operations. Camps were to be open to inspection by authorized representatives of a neutral power.

In World War II, Switzerland and Sweden acted as protecting powers. The International Red Cross at Geneva acted as a clearinghouse for the exchange of all information regarding prisoners of war and had charge of transmitting correspondence and parcels. With minor and inevitable exceptions on the lower levels, the United States and Great Britain generally honored the Geneva Convention throughout the conflict. Japan at first committed such atrocities as the "death march of Bataan," but began to abide by the rules after a sufficient number of Japanese prisoners had fallen into Allied hands to make reprisals possible. Germany did not treat all its prisoners alike. Americans and British subjects received the best treatment, Polish prisoners the worst.

The 1949 Geneva Convention

The changed methods of warfare in World War II, the maltreatment of prisoners of war that constituted an important part of the war crimes indictments, and the retention of a great number of German prisoners of war by the USSR for several years after the war showed that the 1929 Convention required revision on many points. A new convention, reaffirming and supplementing the 1929 Convention, was signed at Geneva in 1949 and subsequently ratified by almost all nations. It broadened the categories of persons entitled to prisoner-of-war status, clearly redefined the conditions of captivity, and reaffirmed the principle of immediate release and repatriation at the end of hostilities.

Although the North Koreans promised to respect the Geneva Convention in the Korean War, they refused to recognize the impartial status of the Red Cross and denied it access to the territory they controlled. The unprecedented refusal of prisoners to be repatriated, moreover, established a new principle of political asylum for prisoners of war. The governments of North and South Vietnam, parties to the 1949 Geneva Convention, were charged with violating it in the Vietnam War—the North by not permitting full reporting, correspondence, and neutral inspection, and the South by allegedly torturing captives and placing them in inhumane prisons. The national anguish over the Vietnam War was extended for decades after the war's end in part because of the lack of resolution over the POW and MIA (missing in action) issue. While the Pentagon's MIA list still contains names of missing servicemen, the last official prisoner of war was declared dead in 1994.

Combatants captured and held by the United States as a result of its operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban government and Al Qaeda forces were not recognized as as prisoners of war by the Bush administration and were termed "unlawful combatants" instead. This decision was criticized by human rights groups as a failure to abide by international law, and drew criticism from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as well. In June, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these prisoners, which the Bush administration had claimed it could hold indefinitely (most of them at the Guantánamo, Cuba, naval base), were not beyond the bounds of U.S. federal law and had the right to challenge their detention.

A month before the ruling, U.S. prestige had suffered a significant blow when it was revealed that U.S. forces had abused Iraqi prisoners in 2003–4. Later revelations suggested that the abuse may have been an outgrowth of U.S. prisoner policy in place since the 2001 terror attacks on the United States, and the ICRC expressed concern that the United States might be continuing to hide prisoners from it, as had been attempted in Iraq. The ICRC subsequently privately charged that U.S. treatment of some prisoners at Guantánamo was "tantamount to torture." Also in 2004 the Bush administration determined that some non-Iraqi prisoners captured in Iraq were not subject to the Geneva Conventions, and that such prisoners could be transferred out of Iraq, as the CIA secretly had done with a small number of prisoners since 2003.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Enemy in Our Hands: America's Treatment of Enemy Prisoners of War, from the Revolution to the War on Terror
Robert C. Doyle.
University Press of Kentucky, 2010
American POWs of World War II: Forgotten Men Tell Their Stories
Tom Bird.
Praeger, 1992
We Were Each Other's Prisoners: An Oral History of World War II American and German Prisoners of War
Lewis H. Carlson.
Basic Books, 1997
Captivity, Flight, and Survival in World War II
Alan J. Levine.
Praeger Publishers, 2000
Death in the Forest: The Story of the Katyn Forest Massacre
J. K. Zawodny.
University of Notre Dame Press, 1962
Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II
Yuki Tanaka.
Westview Press, 1996 (3rd edition)
One Thousand Days in Siberia: The Odyssey of a Japanese-American POW
Iwao Peter Sano.
University of Nebraska Press, 1997
The Bamboo Cage
Nigel Cawthorne.
Leo Cooper, 1991
Legacy of a War: The American Soldier in Vietnam
Ellen Frey-Wouters; Robert S. Laufer.
M. E. Sharpe, 1986
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Treatment of Prisoners of War"
Prisoners, Diplomats, and the Great War: A Study in the Diplomacy of Captivity
Richard B. Speed III.
Greenwood, 1990
Andersonville: The Last Depot
William Marvel.
University of North Carolina Press, 1994
In the Hands of the British: The Treatment of American Pows during the War of Independence
Ranlet, Philip.
The Historian, Vol. 62, No. 4, Summer 2000
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
And the Wind Blew Cold: The Story of An American POW in North Korea
Richard M. Bassett; Lewis H. Carlson.
Kent State University Press, 2002
John Walker Lindh and Yaser Esam Hamdi: Closing the Loophole in International Humanitarian Law for American Nationals Captured Abroad While Fighting with Enemy Forces.
Sperber, Melysa H.
American Criminal Law Review, Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter 2003
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