Pro-Russian separatists marched captured Ukrainian soldiers through the streets of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk over the weekend. The march was a news event that got the attention of many, including international human rights activists, calling the march a violation of the Geneva Conventions’ rules on the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs). The Geneva Conventions are at the core of international humanitarian law and provide a detailed framework for the protection of prisoners of war during armed conflict.

In this informative blog I will set out this legal framework of the protection of prisoners in armed conflict. I will describe the history of the Geneva Conventions and how prisoners should be treated according to the law. And finally, I will emphasize the importance of both sides in a conflict respecting international humanitarian law; the legal limits to warfare.

Geneva Conventions

In history the status of prisoners of war varied depending on conflict, its geographical area, and the parties involved. First attempts of protective provisions for prisoners of war came for example from scholars such as: Hugo Grotius and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 17th and 18th century. They developed ideas and theories about wartime, how to deal with the horrors of war and the treatment of prisoners. Grotius wrote: ‘To spare prisoners is commanded by the nature of goodness and justice’.

The ideas and theories of the scholars have lived until the end of the 19th century. After the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863 and the Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907, the first rules protecting prisoners of war were detailed in the 1929 Geneva Convention concerning the treatment of prisoners of war. The violations of the rules of this Convention during the Second World War resulted in the refining of the rules in the Third 1949 Geneva Convention, which expands on and improves the provisions laid down before.

Prisoners of war

Most of the rules about warfare are to be found in the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols. The Third 1949 Geneva Convention (GC III) is concerned with prisoners of war. It defines their rights and sets down detailed rules for their treatment and eventual release. It furthermore reads that detention of POWs is not a form of punishment, but only aims to prevent further participation in the conflict. POWs must be treated humanely in all circumstances. They are protected against any act of violence, insults, and public curiosity.

Examples from the GC III:

Article 4 GC III provides a definition of prisoners of war and gives them a combatant status. The articles 13 GC III and 14 GC III provide that prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated and protected, and that their persons and honour are respected.

Non-international armed conflicts

The Geneva Convention on prisoners of war applies to international armed conflicts. The Geneva Conventions’ Common Article 3 is the only article in all the Geneva Conventions to address internal armed conflicts. The article provides that as a minimum ‘persons including armed forces, who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely’. The Article confirms the requirement of humane treatment for all detainees in an armed conflict, regardless of their status or the nature of the conflict. Non-state actors are also bound to the principle of humane treatment in Common Article 3.

Unfortunately the principle of humane treatment is often violated in conflicts. International human rights activists call last Sundays’ march in Donetsk a violation of this principle and Common Article 3. Pro-Russian separatists were not allowed to march the Ukrainian soldiers in public they say.

It should be clear that limits to conflicts are always important. Not only for the situation in the Ukraine, but for all parties to a conflict, everywhere in the world. Parties should spare civilians, protect prisoners, and respect international humanitarian law. To illustrate the importance of this I would like to end my blog by quoting from the website of the International Committee of the Red Cross:

“People have always used violence to solve disputes. And all cultures have always had the idea that there have to be limits on that violence, if we are to prevent wars from descending into barbarity. For instance, the rules that protect non-participants, prisoners and the wounded. These rules are set out in international humanitarian law.”


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