Prisoners of War Law



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Prisoners of War are persons, whether combatants or non-combatants, who are taken prisoner during a military conflict or immediately thereafter. Modern laws relating to the treatment of prisoners of war date back all the way to the middle ages. But, the most common source of modern international laws pertaining to the treatment of prisoners may be found in the Geneva Convention.

Geneva Convention

Article 12

Under Part II, Article 12 of the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are considered to be the captives of the enemy power, not the individuals or military units who actually take them into custody. As a result, the government of the enemy power, and not the individuals or military units are responsible for these prisoners' treatment. This prevents authorities from turning a blind eye to the actions of their soldiers and makes them directly responsible for the treatment of prisoners of war.

Moreover, if the enemy power intends to transfer custody of the prisoner, it may only do so to another Geneva Convention signee, and only after it is satisfied that the other country intends to apply ethical treatment under the Geneva Convention. If it fails to do so, the original enemy power can still be held liable.

Article 13

Under Part 2, Article 13 prisoners of war must always be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war is prohibited, and constitutes a serious breach of the Geneva Convention. This means that no prisoner of war may be subjected to torture, such as physical mutilation, or to medical or scientific experimentation of any kind that is not in the prisoner's best interests. Similarly, prisoners of war are protected against reprisals for acts of their government (i.e., killing hostages in retaliation), as well as any other acts of violence, intimidation, or public humiliation or insults.

Other Prisoner of War Laws

There are a number of other conventions and international treaties with provisions pertaining to the ethical treatment of prisoners of war, war refugees, and others taken custody during war time. A prominent example is the Agreement on the Gaza Strip and Jericho Agreement, pertaining to prisoners of war around areas that have been in conflict with Israel. There are many other examples, as well.

If you have a question pertaining to prisoners of war, you can review the materials below or contact an attorney to help you with your specific issues. You an find a list of attorneys in your area by visiting our Law Firms page.

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Prisoners of War Law

  • ABA - Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities

    Created in 1966, the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities provides leadership within the ABA and the legal profession in protecting and advancing human rights, civil liberties, and social justice. The Section fulfills this role by 1) raising and addressing often complex and difficult civil rights and civil liberties issues in a changing and diverse society, and 2) ensuring that protection of individual rights remains a focus of legal and policy decisions.

  • Code of Conduct - United States Prisoners of War

    Your obligations as a US citizen and a member of the Armed Forces result from the traditional values that underlie the American experience as a nation. These values are best expressed in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, which you have sworn to uphold and defend. You would have these obligations—to your country, your Service and unit, and your fellow Americans—even if the Code of Conduct had never been formulated as a high standard of general behavior.

  • Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (Third Geneva Convention)

    The Convention was adopted by the Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War, held at Geneva from 21 April to 12 August 1949. It was signed on 12 August 1949.

  • Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT)

    The UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT) is one of the United Nations mechanisms directed to the prevention of torture and other forms of ill-treatment. It started its work in February 2007. The OPCAT gives the SPT the right to visit all places of detention in those States and examine the treatment of people held there.

  • Prisoners of War and Detainees Overview - International Committee of the Red Cross

    The third Geneva Convention provides a wide range of protection for prisoners of war. It defines their rights and sets down detailed rules for their treatment and eventual release. International humanitarian law (IHL) also protects other persons deprived of liberty as a result of armed conflict.

  • Uniform Code of Military Justice

    The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ, 64 Stat. 109, 10 U.S.C. Chapter 47), is the foundation of military law in the United States. It was established by the United States Congress in accordance with the authority given by the United States Constitution in Article I, Section 8, which provides that "The Congress shall have Power . . . To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval forces."

  • United Nations - Geneva Convention and the Treatment of Prisoners of War

    Although one of the Powers in conflict may not be a party to the present Convention, the Powers who are parties thereto shall remain bound by it in their mutual relations. They shall furthermore be bound by the Convention in relation to the said Power, if the latter accepts and applies the provisions thereof.

Organizations Related to Prisoners of War Law

  • American Ex-Prisoners of War

    A not-for-profit, Congressionally-chartered, veterans’ service organization advocating for former prisoners of war and their families. Established April 14, 1942.

  • Crimes of War Project

    The Crimes of War Project is a collaboration of journalists, lawyers and scholars dedicated to raising public awareness of the laws of war and their application to situations of conflict. Our goal is to promote understanding of international humanitarian law among journalists, policymakers, and the general public, in the belief that a wider knowledge of the legal framework governing armed conflict will lead to greater pressure to prevent breaches of the law, and to punish those who commit them.

  • ICRC - War and International Humanitarian Law

    Armed conflict is as old as humankind itself. There have always been customary practices in war, but only in the last 150 years have States made international rules to limit the effects of armed conflict for humanitarian reasons. The Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions are the main examples. Usually called international humanitarian law (IHL), it is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict.

  • Prisoner of War / Missing Personnel Office, Defense (DPMO)

    "Keeping the Promise," Fulfill their Trust," and "No one left behind" are several of many mottos that refer to the efforts of the Department of Defense to recover those who became missing while serving our nation. The mission requires expertise in archival research, intelligence collection and analysis, field investigations and recoveries and scientific laboratories.

  • Stop POW Torture

    American service personnel have suffered at the hands of torturers in war after war for a century or more. The United States needs a serious commitment by our government in Washington to stop once and for all the torture of our servicemen and women by rogue nations and their leaders, like Iraq under Saddam Hussein. POWs are legally protected under the Third Geneva Convention, a binding international treaty signed by the U.S., Iraq, and 192 other nations (only Nauru is not a party). We should not compromise on humane treatment of our troops and citizens.

Publications Related to Prisoners of War Law

  • Federal Research Division (FRD) - POW/MIA Databases and Documents

    In December 1991, Congress enacted Public Law 102-190, commonly referred to as the McCain Bill. The statute requires the Secretary of Defense to make available to the public--in a "library like setting"--all information relating to the treatment, location, and/or condition (T-L-C) of United States personnel who are unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War. The facility chosen to receive this information was the Library of Congress (LoC). The Federal Research Division (FRD) created the PWMIA Database, the online index to those documents. The microfilmed documents themselves are available at the Library of Congress or borrowed through local libraries.

  • NPS -Andersonville National Historic Site - Sacrifice and Courage

    From the Revolutionary War to Operation Iraqi Freedom, American prisoners of war have endured untold hardships, and shown tremendous courage. Andersonville NHS commemorates the sacrifices of these brave Americans through exhibits in the National Prisoner of War Museum; preserves the site of Camp Sumter (Andersonville prison); and manages Andersonville National Cemetery.