Human Rights News
HRW Documents on Iraq FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Rights and Duties of Prisoners of War
March 24, 2003

Question: Which are the rights and duties of prisoners of war?

Prisoners of war (POWs) are combatants in an international armed conflict who have fallen into the hands of the enemy. Persons entitled to POW status include: members of the armed forces, members of militia or similar forces who meet certain conditions, persons accompanying the armed forces without belonging to them, civilians taking up arms “en masse” and others. Captured journalists are also entitled to the protections of POW status.

POWs cannot be prosecuted for the mere fact of having participated in the armed conflict. They may however be prosecuted for war crimes. POWs must be released and repatriated at the end of the active hostilities.

The Detaining Power -- and not the individual military units who have captured them -- are responsible for the well-being of POWs. POWs are entitled to rights derived from the 1949 Geneva Conventions and other laws and customs of war. The Third Geneva Convention is a very detailed code regulating the rights and duties of POWs.

The following are some of the POW rights and duties most relevant to the present conflict. This is not an exhaustive list. These rights and duties are effective from the moment in which POWs are apprehended.

  • Upon capture, POWs should not be exposed to danger while awaiting evacuation from a fighting zone. They should not be sent to or detained in a location where he may be exposed to the fire of the combat zone.

  • POWs must be humanely treated at all times; willful killing of POWs, their ill treatment or torture or willfully causing great suffering (including moral suffering inflicted for reasons such as punishment, revenge or pure sadism) or serious injury to body or health, or depriving them of the rights of fair trial, constitutes war crimes.

  • Reprisals against POWs are strictly forbidden; they cannot be punished for acts they have not committed or subjected to collective punishment.

  • POWs must be protected in their honor. In particular they must not be subject to insults, violence and public curiosity whether from enemy forces or civilians. They must not be paraded or interrogated in front of the media, and their images should not be used for political purposes.

  • If they are questioned, POWs are only obliged to give their name and rank, date of birth and army serial number or equivalent information. No torture or other form of coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to obtain from them any type of information.

  • Women POWs have the right to be treated with due regard for their sex and to be given benefit at least from the same treatment as men. Children who are POWs are entitled to special treatment.

  • POWs must be interned in premises affording guarantees of hygiene. The Detaining Power has an obligation to provide food, clothing and shelter to POWs. Wounded or ill POWs should be provided with the same medical care that is given to the members of the armed forces of the Detaining Power.

  • Among the rights afforded to POWs are to: practice their religion, send and receive letters, receive a copy of the Geneva Conventions, and appoint a representative among themselves to deal with the detaining authorities.

  • POW also have duties derived from the laws of war, the regulations of the Detaining Power and military discipline. POWs are subject to the laws and orders of the enemy army, they can be tried and punished for the same infractions and with the sanctions for which members of the enemy army can be tried and punished. In case they commit a non-military crime they are subject to the laws and courts of the Detaining Power.

  • If a POW tries to escape and is recaptured, the POW is only liable to disciplinary confinement; however the POW may be punished for any violence used in the escape attempt.