Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War

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Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War


By: United Nations

Date: October 21, 1950

Source: United Nations. "The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War." Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War, October 21, 1950.

About the Author: The phrase "United Nations" was used during World War II (1939–1945) to describe the dozens of nations allied together to fight Germany and Japan, most notably including China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States of America. These allies decided to develop a new organization to facilitate international cooperation and help prevent future wars. It would replace the League of Nations, which had failed to prevent World War II. They called it the United Nations (UN). The UN Charter was ratified on October 24, 1945. In the years since the UN has served as a forum for international negotiation and cooperation on many issues, including international security, human rights, trade and economics, and the environment.


The Geneva Conventions of 1949 were created by the members of the United Nations under the guidance of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and took effect on October 21, 1950. The provision to protect prisoners of war recognizes that while nations are quite capable of committing gross abuses of human rights in peacetime, wartime creates an especially fertile ground for horrendous attacks on individuals. The hatred, tension, and upheaval inherent in armed conflicts, particularly civil wars, has led to the murder or illtreatment of prisoners of war throughout history. Prisoners of war are defined as combatants who have fallen into the hands of the enemy. They are among the most vulnerable group for potential abuse by authorities.

International disgust at the brutal treatment accorded to prisoners of war by the Germans and Japanese during World War II led to a push to codify the proper behavior of states toward prisoners. The idea of protecting prisoners of war was not a new one. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 built upon the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War and the Hague Conventions of 1899 to 1907 that covered the conduct of war.

The 1949 prisoner of war convention reflects innovations by applying to all international armed conflicts, regardless of any formal state of war; elaborating basic principles for non-international armed conflict; and providing a list of grave breaches for which countries are obligated to enact penal legislation and prosecute or extradite individual offenders. The grave breaches include willful killing, torture or inhumane treatment, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, compelling a prisoner of war to serve in the forces of the hostile power, willfully depriving a prisoner of war of the rights of a fair and regular trial, and unlawful deportation of a protected person. Civilian internees, such as the Japanese Americans during World War II, enjoy similar protections to those granted to prisoners of war.


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The convention has received near-universal acceptance, giving it a strong claim to represent customary law. However, rogue nations and countries experiencing a collapse of internal structures do not always obey the rules of war with respect to prisoners. In African countries experiencing civil war, such as Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s, prisoners of war were tortured, mutilated, killed, or forced to serve as soldiers for the side of their captors. With international reluctance to send troops to mediate such conflicts, the abuses have continued. In situations where troops are attempting to halt civil unrest, such as Iraq at the millennium, terrorists have abused prisoners of war to make political points.

In the 1990s, the UN Security Council began establishing criminal tribunals with international judges to prosecute those who had committed human rights abuses in the context of war. In 2002, the countries of the world met in Rome to establish the International Criminal Court (ICC). In contrast to the UN tribunals, the ICC is the first global permanent court with jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for crimes of greatest concern to the international community: genocide; crimes against humanity; and war crimes. The United States has yet to sign the ICC treaty.

American officials fear that an independent prosecutor, motivated by anti-Americanism, might single out U.S. military personal and senior government officials for persecution. They argue that Americans should not be placed at risk of criminal prosecution for national security decisions involving such matters as responding to acts of terrorism, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and deterring aggression. Any American prosecuted by the ICC would be denied procedural protections guaranteed to all U.S. citizens under the Bill of Rights, such as the right to trial by jury. In 2002, in response to these concerns, the United States Congress passed the American Service Members' Protection Act, declaring that the United States will not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC over American nationals.



Berkowitz, Peter. Terrorism, the Laws of War, and the Constitution: Debating the Enemy Combatant Cases. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 2005.

Byers, Michael. War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict. New York: Grove Press, 2006.

Jinks, Derek. The Rules of War: The Geneva Convention in the Age of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War

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