"if the man were whole I could turn him over to the police without
difficulty. I care nothing for him. He is my enemy. All Americans are my enemy.
And he is only a common fellow. You see how foolish his face is. But since he is
wounded " These lines by Sadao, a Japanese doctor in the story The Enemy by
Pearl S. Buck, describes how citizens of warring nations tend to forget their
duties as humans towards prisoners of war and prioritize the mean goals of their
Any person captured by the enemy during a war is known as a prisoner of war (PoW).
The soldiers of the defeated enemy were imprisoned and subjected to torture and
cruelty and were then killed. In earlier times there was no recognition of
prisoners of war and everyone who was captured was treated in the same way. The
captive, either he or she was involved in the war or was just a citizen of the
enemy country, was treated similarly; he or she was tortured and later put to
As warfare changed, so did the treatment meted out to the soldiers and other
citizens of the defeated enemy who were taken as captives. Not only were the
prisoners of war considered as a burden on the State but the treatment which was
meted out to them was also questioned. A prisoner of war was taken into
captivity not as a piece of property but to prevent him from doing any further
harm. Writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote on the same theme and with
time the treatment meted out to the prisoners improved to some extent.
In the late 19th century, wars broke in many parts of the world which added to
the number of prisoners of war and during the World War I, the number of the
prisoners of war rose upto millions. Many countries and organisations held
conferences and formed conventions to look into the treatment which was being
given to the prisoners of war. However, many countries refused to ratify those
During the World War II, millions of people were taken captive as prisoners of
war. Many countries dealt with them as per the conventions ratified earlier
however, the dealing of some countries was absolutely barbaric. 5,700,000 Red
Army soldiers were captured by the Germans, however, only about 2,000,000 of
them survived the war. More than 2,000,000 of the 3,800,000 Soviet troops were
captured during the German invasion in 1941 and they were starved to death.
The Soviets allocated hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war to labour
camps where most of them died. The Japanese treated their British, American, and
Australian prisoners of war brutally and oppressively and only about 60 percent
of them survived the war. After the war, the oppressors were tried for the war
crimes committed by them and were punished accordingly.
The Geneva Conventions, formulated in 1849 and then revised in 1949, were
adopted in order to provide minimum protections, ensure standards of humane
treatment, and ensure fundamental guarantees of respect to individuals who had
become victims of armed conflicts. The Geneva Conventions are a series of
treaties on the treatment of civilians, prisoners of war and soldiers who are
incapable of fighting.
The conventions require the humane treatment of prisoners of war and prohibit
torture, mutilation, humiliation and degrading behaviour. The provisions of
these conventions are applicable on all the member states.
The rights of prisoners of war has always been a debated issue. Some countries
do treat their prisoners of war with respect and mete out humane treatment
however, some are harsh and brutal. It needs to be ensured that prisoners of war
all around the world need to be treated with respect and dignity because just
like other people they too are humans and deserve humane treatment.
Written By: Akshita Tandon
, 4th Year Law Student, University Institute of
Legal Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh