70 years on: Protecting prisoners of war

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Shayan Ahmed Khan;
On August 12 1949, following the aftermath and horrors of the Second World War, states adopted the four Geneva Conventions to mitigate the brutality of armed conflicts, and to minimize human suffering in such conflicts for years to come. Together, the Conventions established the modern international legal standards applied during times of war which protect persons not taking part in hostilities (including civilians, health workers and aid workers), and those who are no longer participating in hostilities, such as the wounded, the sick and shipwrecked soldiers and prisoners of war. More than seventy years have
passed from the time of their adoption. Since then, a lot has changed. Importantly, warfare itself has changed. Conventional forms of inter-state conflicts, which inspired the origins of the Conventions, are now the exception and not the norm. Instead, wars today are complex and asymmetric—waged predominantly between states and non-state armed groups. As a consequence of this paradigm shift,critics have questioned the contemporary relevance of the 1949 Conventions whose principal scope of application extends only to inter-state (international) armed conflicts. Similar doubts have also been
raised as to the relevance of the Third Geneva Convention—a comprehensive regime governing the treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs)—which does not apply to non-international armed conflicts that are more pervasive than ever today. At first glance, these arguments seem attractive. However, upon closer inspection, we see that the 1949 Conventions, including the Third Geneva Convention, have not only stood the test of time but remain fit for purpose even today. This is the case for the following reasons: Firstly, the rules enunciated in the four Geneva Conventions, including the progressive rules on POWs, have been applied by parties to non-international armed conflicts through the mechanism of special agreements. In addition, a number of non-state armed groups have made
unilateral declarations to express their intention to abide by the rules enunciated in the Conventions , in particular, the Third Geneva Convention—as in the case of the Algerian National Liberation Front, and more recently, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Although such commitments do not guarantee enhanced respect, they have, nonetheless, been utilised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—in its role as the guardian and promoter of the Conventions—as a basis for follow up interventions to improve compliance, and by the international community to hold
such parties to their commitments. Secondly, it must not be forgotten that the practice of taking POWs exists even today. To place this in context, just in the last year alone, the ICRC visited 1274 places of detention which held more than 1 million detainees. This figure alone stands as a testament to the need for a protective regime which ensures that POWs are treated humanely, and in accordance with the inherent human dignity and inviolable quality to which all persons are entitled as human beings. Due to this expansive scope of application, it is critical for states to undertake timely preparation and planning
in order to respect and ensure respect for the Convention. These peacetime obligations include, among others: the adoption and implementation of legislation instituting penal sanctions for violations of the Convention(s); spreading knowledge of the Convention(s) as widely as possible among the civilian population.