(New York, March 24, 2003) – It violates the Geneva Conventions for
either the Iraqi or the U.S. government to deliberately expose prisoners
of war (POWs) to the media, Human Rights Watch said today.
According to the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, a detaining authority in wartime has a clear obligation not to parade POWs, or allow them to be exposed to the public. The prohibition is not a blanket ban on any image whatsoever of a POW; for example, it would not extend to incidental filming of POWs, when journalists are documenting broader military operations.
"Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. ... Likewise,
prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against
acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public
curiosity. Measures of reprisal against prisoners of war are
But a detaining authority in wartime has a clear obligation not to parade POWs, or allow them to be exposed to the public. Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention (relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) states:
“Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. ... Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity. Measures of reprisal against prisoners of war are prohibited.”
In general, this provision requires that the authorities of the detaining power be proactive in defending the honor and moral integrity of the prisoner of war. Every POW when questioned is required only to give name, rank, serial number and date of birth.
This provision protecting POWs from “public curiosity” appears to have been violated by both the Iraqi and the U.S. governments. The Iraqi government has filmed American POWs and interrogated them before cameras. The U.S. government has taken insufficient measures to prevent journalists embedded with U.S. forces from filming Iraqi POWs held by the United States.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has appropriately criticized the Iraqi filming of American POWs. However, he has said nothing to date about the filming of Iraqi POWs by media operating alongside U.S. forces.
This is not the first time that Secretary Rumsfeld has been unresponsive to concerns that the United States may be acting in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Human Rights Watch and others have previously criticized the U.S. government for aspects of its treatment of captured persons during the war in Afghanistan, particularly the failure to properly determine the legal status of those held, and “stress and duress” techniques that might amount to torture under international law.
“American POWs in Iraqi custody need all the help they can get to secure their Geneva Convention rights,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s unfortunate that the United States hasn’t been a more staunch defender of the Geneva Conventions in its own recent conduct.”
U.S. forces have accorded POW status to Iraqi soldiers they have detained in recent days.
Executing or otherwise mistreating prisoners of war is a war crime. The Iraqi government’s treatment of U.S. POWs in the previous Gulf War gives serious grounds for concern about their treatment currently.