Prisoners of War

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Prisoners of War


in international law, members of the armed forces of a fighting side (including voluntary detachments of partisan armies, members of rebellious movements, and other combatants) who find themselves captured by the enemy. Sometimes, however, prisoners of war are noncombatants—for example, war correspondents, merchant marine sailors, and members of civil aviation.

Until the second half of the 19th century, international law did not include any multilateral agreements establishing regulations for prisoner-of-war camps. The first convention on the laws and rules of land warfare, which established regulations for prisoner-of-war camps, was adopted in 1899 at the First Hague Peace Conference. The Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907 worked out a new convention that out-lined more detailed rules for holding prisoners of war. World War I (1914-18) demonstrated the necessity for further development of prisoner-of-war camp standards, and in 1929 the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War was accepted. (The USSR did not participate in it.)

During World War II, fascist Germany, which had violated international convention, subjected prisoners of war to torture and mass murder. In an attempt to prevent the arbitrary decisions of belligerents, a Geneva convention on the treatment of prisoners of war that leaned toward more humanitarian regulations of war was worked out and signed in 1949 under the sponsorship of socialist governments and democratic world powers. Because of the efforts of the USSR and other socialist countries, this convention included some new principles—for example, it forbade discrimination against prisoners of war because of race, color, religion, sex, nationality, or property status; and it established criminal responsibility for breaking the statutes of the convention. An extremely important innovation was the application of convention statutes to civil wars and national wars of liberation. Therefore, the basic conventions containing regulations for prisoner-of-war camps are the Laws and Customs of War on Land (appendix to the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907) and the 1949 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

In agreement with generally accepted norms of current international law, prisoners of war are held by the enemy state, not by individuals or the military divisions responsible for their capture. The treatment of prisoners of war must be humanitarian and without discrimination in all situations. The convention ensures due respect to female prisoners. Taking the lives of prisoners of war, doing them bodily harm (killing, mutilation, cruel treatment, torment, or torture), or demeaning their dignity by insult and belittling is forbidden. A prisoner of war may not be subjected to physical crippling or scientific or medical experimentation unless such action is warranted as medical treatment.

The government holding prisoners of war is responsible for supporting them free of charge and giving them necessary medical attention; the prisoners of war are entitled to food, living quarters, and clothing similar to those of their captors’ army. All personal belongings of the prisoners of war except for weapons, military property, and military documents may remain in their possession. Prisoners of war have complete freedom of religious choice; they are allowed to send and receive mail, individual or collective parcels, and money orders. Prisoners of war (excluding officers) may be employed in activities unrelated to war; they may not be ordered to do work that is dangerous or threatening to their health without their consent. All work performed by prisoners of war must be compensated; part of the salary is used for the support of the prisoner, and the rest is released to him upon his freedom.

Prisoners of war must obey the laws, statutes, and orders affecting the military bodies of the government which is holding them captive; if these laws are not obeyed, legal and disciplinary measures may be taken. (Group punishment for an individual’s crime is forbidden.) They may not be tried or convicted for actions which are not considered criminal by the government holding them captive, nor may any form of punishment be applied to them that is not ordinarily applied to any military personnel of the government for similar deeds. Attempts to escape are punishable only by disciplinary action. All illegal acts, as well as inactivity on the part of the government holding the prisoners, resulting in death or a threat to the health of prisoners, are forbidden and considered to be in direct violation of the convention. Persons guilty of such crimes are regarded as military offenders and are subject to legal prosecution.

In 1958 a law was passed in the USSR on the legal responsibility for war crimes, establishing severe punishment for those who break the laws regarding prisoners of war.

Imperialistic governments have often violated and still violate the accepted norms of international law regarding prisoners of war (for example, mass murders of prisoners of war by fascist Germany during World War II and the premeditated annihilation of prisoners of war of the armed forces of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam by American forces in the criminal war against the Vietnamese people.


“Konventsiia o zakonakh i obychaiakh sukhoputnoi voiny ot 5 (18) okt. 1907 g.” In Mezhdunarodnoe pravo v izbrannykh dokumentakh, vol. 3. Moscow, 1957. Pages 41-46.
“Zhenevskaia konventsiia ob obrashchenii s voennoplennymi ot 12 avg. 1949 g.” InZhenevskie konventsii o zashchite zhertv voiny. Moscow, 1954. Pages 69-129.
Mezhdunarodnoe pravo. Moscow, 1966, Page 617.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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