A prisoner of war (short form: POW) is a fighter who has been captured by the forces of the enemy, during an armed conflict. In past centuries, prisoners had no rights. They were usually killed or forced to be slaves. Nowadays prisoners of war have rights that are stated in the Geneva Conventions and other laws of war.
The Third Geneva Convention gives prisoners of war many different rights. Here are some examples:
- They must be treated decently, with respect
- They must be allowed to tell their families and the International Committee of the Red Cross that they are a POW
- They have the right to communicate with their families, and get packages
- They have the right to keep their clothing, eating utensils, and personal things
- They must be given adequate food, clothing, housing, and medical attention
- If their captors make them work, POWs must be paid for the work they do
- If they are going to be charged with a crime, they must be given a trial
Prisoners of war also have the right NOT to:
- Give their captors any information, except for their name, age, rank, and service number (a military identification number)
- Have their money or valuable things stolen
- Do forced labor, military work, or work that is dangerous, unhealthy, or degrading
Not every prisoner gets these rights
Not all people who are caught while fighting wars are "prisoners of war." The Third Geneva Convention has a strict definition of what a prisoner of war is. For example, it says that to be "prisoners of war," soldiers MUST:
- Wear uniforms or marks on their clothes to make it clear they are soldiers
- Have some sign (like a flag) that shows they are soldiers from a distance
- Carry their weapons out in the open, where they can be seen
- Follow the laws of war
According to the Geneva Conventions, if soldiers do not meet these requirements, they are not "prisoners of war." They are "unlawful combatants" (which means "people who fight in ways that are against the law). This means they do NOT have the rights that are listed in the Geneva Conventions.
This caused controversy in the early 21st century. For example, in June 2002, the United States was fighting the War in Afghanistan. The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, announced that the people the U.S. had captured were "unlawful combatants [who] do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention[s]." The U.S. said these people were unlawful combatants, not prisoners of war, because:
- They did not wear clothing that made them look any different than regular civilians
- They did not organize themselves into groups with a chain of command
- They did not follow the laws of war (because they gave support to Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization)
The U.S. brought some of these people to a prison in Guantánamo Bay. Because they were enemy combatants, the inmates at Guantánamo did not get the rights that the Geneva Conventions give to prisoners of war.
War crimes against prisoners of war
When a country, or a group of people, does not give prisoners of war their rights, they are committing a war crime. However, punishing those war crimes has not always been easy.
Before the 20th century
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