Prisoner of war

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A prisoner of war (POW, PoW, or PW) is a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who is imprisoned by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict. Laws exist to ensure prisoners of war are treated humanely and diplomatically. Nations vary in their dedication to following these laws.

Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention protects captured military personnel, some guerrilla fighters and certain civilians. It applies from the moment a prisoner is captured until he is released or repatriated. One of the main provisions of the convention makes it illegal to torture prisoners, and states that a prisoner can only be required to give his name, date of birth, rank and service number (if applicable).

The status of POW does not include unarmed non-combatants who are captured in time of war; they are protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention rather than the Third Geneva Convention.


Qualification as POW

In principle, to be entitled to prisoner of war status the captured service member must have conducted operations according to the laws and customs of war, e.g. be part of a chain of command, wear a uniform and bear arms openly. Thus, franc-tireurs, terrorists and spies may be excluded. In practice these criteria are not always interpreted strictly. Guerrillas, for example, may not wear a uniform or carry arms openly, yet are typically granted POW status if captured. However, guerrillas or any other combatant may not be granted the status if they try to use both the civilian and the military status. Thus, the importance of uniforms — or as in the guerrilla case, a badge — to keep this important rule of warfare.

Treatment of POWs

The treatment of prisoners of war can depend on the resources, social attitudes and policies of the governments and militaries in question. For instance, in World War II, Soviet prisoners of Nazi Germany and German prisoners of the Soviet Union were often treated with neglect and brutality. The Nazi Regime regarded Soviet POWs as being of a lower racial order, and many Soviet POWs were consequently subject to enforced labour or were murdered in keeping with The Third Reich's policy of "racial purification." An official justification used by the Germans for this policy was the fact that the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva convention. Prisoners from Britain and the US were generally treated much better by the Germans. On the Soviet side, German POWs were regarded as having forfeited their right to fair treatment, because of the widespread crimes committed against Soviet civilians during their invasion campaign. This combined with the fact that much of the Soviet workforce was now in the hands of Nazi Germany, also led to employment of many German POWs as forced labour (this forced labour was in keeping with that imposed on Soviet civilians for a range of criminal and political crimes).

In the Pacific Theater, some of the harshest treatment of POWs were dealt by the Japanese. Prisoners held by Japanese armed forces were subject to brutal treatment, including forced labour, medical experimentation, vivisection, starvation rations, beatings for escape attempts, and were denied medical treatment. Whereas Allied POWs had a death rate of about 2% to 4% in German POW camps, the death rate in Japanese camps was generally in the range of 20% to 35%. This was due in part to physical maltreatment by the Japanese, but was exacerbated by malnutrition and lack of medicines, particularly antimalarial drugs. Similarly, during the Vietnam War, American service members captured by North Vietnam were routinely beaten and tortured in violation of their status as prisoners of war.

By contrast, POW facilities held by Allied nations like the USA, UK and Canada usually complied strictly to the Geneva Conventions, which sometimes created conditions POWs found were more comfortable than their own side's barracks. This approach was decided on the idea that having POWs well treated meant a ready supply of healthy and cooperative laborers for farmwork and the like, as allowed by the Geneva Conventions, which eased personnel shortages. There were also the benefits of a lower chance of having to deal with escapes or prisoner disruption. In addition, as word spread among the enemy about the conditions of Allied POW camps, it encouraged surrenders which helped further Allied military goals efficiently. Furthermore, it may have raised morale among the Allied personnel when the usefulness of this approach was accepted by reinforcing the idea that this humane treatment of prisoners showed that their side was morally superior to the enemy.

Alternative definitions

Some groups define Prisoner of War in accordance with their internal politics and world view. Since the special rights of a prisoner of war, granted by governments, are the result of multilateral treaties, these definitions have no legal effect and those claiming rights under these definitions would legally be considered common criminals under an arresting jurisdiction's laws. However, it must be noted that in most cases these groups do not demand such rights.

Anarchist Black Cross Federation definition

Anarchist Black Cross Federation has defined the term in its constitution as "those persons incarcerated as a result of political beliefs or actions consciously undertaken and intended to resist exploitation and oppression, and/or hasten the implementation of an egalitarian, sustainable, ethical, classless society, predicated on self determination and maximization of all people's freedom."

November Coalition definition

November Coalition uses the term Prisoner of War to also refer to Prisoner of Drug War or Prisoner of War on Drugs. Every person charged with the crime under the statues of the Drug War fits that definition, whether or not that individual's arrest and conviction was legal.

The American term EPW -- Enemy Prisoner of War

The term enemy prisoner of war (EPW) is used by the United States to refer to a captured enemy service member in their custody, but is not a term under the Geneva Conventions.

PoWs since Geneva Convention (1929)

List of nations with the highest number of PoWs in any war since the 1st Geneva Convention came into effect in 1929. The USSR had not signed the Geneva convention. [1] All except one took place during World War II. Listed in descending order.

Country Prisoners of War Name of the conflict
U.S.S.R 5,700,000 World War II (Total)
France 1,900,000 Battle of France in World War II
U.S.A ~130,000 World War II
Germany N/A* World War II
Great Britain N/A* World War II
Pakistan 93,000 Indo-Pakistani War of 1971

* Currently no reliable and neutral figures are available.

List of notable POWs

This is a list of POWs that attracted notable attention or influence by this status.

A Pakistan stamp shows the 90,000 PoWs in Indian camps following its surrender in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.
A Pakistan stamp shows the 90,000 PoWs in Indian camps following its surrender in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.

Further reading

  • Richard D. Wiggers "The United States and the Denial of Prisoner of War (POW) Status at the End of the Second World War," Militargeschichtliche Mitteilungen 52 (1993) pp. 91-94.

Documentaries about POWs

See also


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, edition CD Edition (2002). Article: Prisoner of War
  2. Gendercide site
  3. ^  Clark, Alan Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-1945 page 206, ISBN 0-304-35864-9

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