prisoner of war

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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 crimeswar crimes,
in international law, violations of the laws of war (see war, laws of). Those accused have been tried by their own military and civilian courts, by those of their enemy, and by expressly established international tribunals.
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) and forces that do not observe conventional requirements for combatants (see war, laws ofwar, laws of,
in international law, rules and principles regulating an armed conflict between nations. These laws are designed to minimize the destruction of life and property, to proscribe cruel treatment of noncombatants and prisoners of war, and to establish conditions under
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).

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 EmpireOttoman Empire
, vast state founded in the late 13th cent. by Turkish tribes in Anatolia and ruled by the descendants of Osman I until its dissolution in 1918. Modern Turkey formed only part of the empire, but the terms "Turkey" and "Ottoman Empire" were often used
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 and the Barbary StatesBarbary States,
term used for the North African states of Tripolitania, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. From the 16th cent. Tripolitania, Tunisia, and Algeria were autonomous provinces of the Turkish Empire. Morocco pursued its own independent development.
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 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 VattelVattel, Emerich de
, 1714–67, Swiss philosopher and jurist. He served (1746–58) as Saxon minister at Bern and later in the cabinet of Augustus III at Dresden.
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. During the American Civil War, Francis LieberLieber, Francis
, 1798–1872, German-American political philosopher, b. Berlin. Ardently patriotic, he enlisted in the Prussian army and fought and was wounded at the battle of Waterloo. On his return to Germany he joined the Turnverein movement.
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 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 IWorld War I,
1914–18, also known as the Great War, conflict, chiefly in Europe, among most of the great Western powers. It was the largest war the world had yet seen.
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, and the International Red CrossRed Cross,
international organization concerned with the alleviation of human suffering and the promotion of public health; the world-recognized symbols of mercy and absolute neutrality are the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, and the Red Crystal flags and emblems.
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 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 crimeswar crimes,
in international law, violations of the laws of war (see war, laws of). Those accused have been tried by their own military and civilian courts, by those of their enemy, and by expressly established international tribunals.
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 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 WarKorean War,
conflict between Communist and non-Communist forces in Korea from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953. At the end of World War II, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel into Soviet (North Korean) and U.S. (South Korean) zones of occupation.
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, 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 WarVietnam War,
conflict in Southeast Asia, primarily fought in South Vietnam between government forces aided by the United States and guerrilla forces aided by North Vietnam. The war began soon after the Geneva Conference provisionally divided (1954) Vietnam at 17° N lat.
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—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 TalibanTaliban
or Taleban
, Islamic fundamentalist militia of Afghanistan and later Pakistan, originally consisting mainly of Sunni Pashtun religious students from Afghanistan who were educated and trained in Pakistan.
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 government and Al QaedaAl Qaeda
or Al Qaida
[Arab.,=the base], Sunni Islamic terrorist organization with the stated goals of uniting all Muslims and establishing a transnational, strict-fundamentalist Islamic state.
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 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.