“Prisoners of war” are combatants who have fallen into the hands of the enemy, or specific non-combatants to whom the status of prisoner of war is granted by international humanitarian law.The following categories of persons are prisoners of war:

  1. members of the armed forces of a party to the conflict, including members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces (this includes members of regular armed forces who profess allegiance to a government or authority not recognized by the Detaining Power);
  2. members of other militias or other volunteer corps that belong to a party to the conflict, provided that such groups:
  • are under responsible command;
  • have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
  • carry arms openly; and
  • conduct operations according to the law of armed conflict;

c. civilians who accompany the armed forces provided they are authorized by the armed force they accompany;

d. members of crews of merchant marine and civilian aircraft of a party to the conflict who do not benefit from more favourable treatment under international law;

e. participants in a levée en masse; and

f. the military wounded, sick and shipwrecked who fall into the hands of an enemy.

 Combatants are required to distinguish themselves from the civilian population while they are engaged in an attack or in a military operation preparatory to an attack.A combatant who fails to distinguish himself while he is engaged in an attack or in a military operation preparatory to an attack loses his combatant status if he is captured, which means he does not have prisoner of war status and can be tried for an act of war.However, he is to be given protections equivalent in all respects to those provided to prisoners of war under the third Geneva Convention.Notably, in international armed conflicts governed by Additional Protocol I, a combatant distinguishes himself sufficiently if he carries his arms openly:

  1. during each military engagement; and
  2. during such time as he is visible to the adversary while engaged in a military deployment preceding the launching of an attack in which he is to participate.

 Persons excluded from prisoner of war status:The following persons are explicitly excluded from prisoner of war status in the law of armed conflict:

  1. members of the armed forces of a party who fall into the power of the adverse party while engaging in espionage; and
  2. mercenaries.

 See also Combatants





Suggested readings:

CRAWFORD Emily, The Treatment of Combatants and Insurgents under the Law of Armed Conflict, Oxford, OUP, 2010, 213 pp. DINSTEIN Yoram, “The Release of Prisoners of War”, in Studies and Essays on International Humanitarian Law and Red Cross Principles in Honour of Jean Pictet, Geneva/The Hague, ICRC/M. Nijhoff, 1984, pp. 37-45. ESGAIN Albert J. & SOLF Waldemar A., “The 1949 Geneva Conventions Relating to the Treatment of Prisoners of War: Its Principles, Innovations and Deficiencies”, in North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 41/3, 1963, pp. 537-596. FISCHER Horst, “Protection of Prisoners of War”, in FLECK Dieter (ed.), Handbook of Humanitarian Law, Oxford, OUP, 1995, pp. 321-367 HINGORANI Rup C., Prisoners of War, New York, Oceana Publications, 2nd ed., 1982, 315 pp. JINKS Derek, “The Declining Significance of POW Status”, in Harvard International Law Journal, Vol. 45/2, Summer 2004, pp. 367-442. KASTENBERG Josh, “The Customary International Law of War and Combatant Status: Does the Current Executive Branch Policy Determination on Unlawful Combatant Status for Terrorists Run Afoul of International Law, or Is It Just Poor Public Relations?”, in Gonzaga Law Review, Vol. 39, 2003-2004, pp. 495-537. LAPIDOTH Ruth, “Qui a droit au statut de prisonnier de guerre ?”, in RGDIP, Vol. 82/1, 1978, pp. 170-210. LEVIE Howard S. (ed.), “Prisoners of War in International Armed Conflict”, in International Law Studies, US Naval War College, Vol. 59, 1978, 529 pp. LEVIE Howard S. (ed.), “Documents on Prisoners of War”, in International Law Studies, US Naval War College, Vol. 60, 1979, 853 pp. LEVIE Howard S., “The Employment of Prisoners of War”, in AJIL, Vol. 57/2, 1963, pp. 318-353. R McDONALD Neil & SULLIVAN Scott, “Rational Interpretation in Irrational Times: The Third Geneva Convention and War on Terror”, in Harvard International Law Journal, Vol. 44/1, 2003, pp. 301-316. NAQVI Yasmin, “Doubtful Prisoner-of-War Status”, in IRRC, No. 847, September 2002, pp. 571-596. NOONE Gregory P. [et al.], “Prisoners of War in the 21st Century: Issues in Modern Warfare”, in Naval Law Review, Vol. 50, 2004, pp. 1-69 RODLEY Nigel S., The Treatment of Prisoners under International Law, Paris, UNESCO, 1987, 374 pp. PETIT Françoise Camille, “Terrorisme et droit international humanitaire: quelles leçons tirer du statut controversé des prisonniers de Guantánamo ?”, in Droit et Défense, 2002/3, July-September 2002, pp. 25-32. ROSAS Allan, The Legal Status of Prisoners of War: A Study of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts, Helsinki, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1976, 523 pp. SASSÒLI Marco, “La ‘guerre contre le terrorisme’, le droit international humanitaire et le statut de prisonnier de guerre”, in CYIL, Vol. 39, 2001, pp. 211-252. SHIELDS DELESSERT Christiane, Release and Repatriation of Prisoners of War at the End of Active Hostilities: A Study of Article 118, paragraph 1, of the Third Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Zurich, Schulthess, Études suisses de Droit international, Vol. 5, 1977, 225 pp. VIERUCCI Luisa, “Prisoners of War or Protected Persons qua Unlawful Combatants? The Judicial Safeguards to which Guantánamo Bay Detainees are Entitled”, in Journal of International Criminal Justice, Vol. 1/2, 2003, pp. 284-314. WECKEL Philippe, “Le statut incertain des détenus sur la base américaine de Guantánamo”, in RGDIP, Vol. 106/2, 2002, pp. 357-369. Further readings: BAXTER Richard R., “Asylum to Prisoners of War”, in BYIL, Vol. 30, 1953, pp. 489-498 BOGAR Thomas J., “Unlawful Combatant or Innocent Civilian? A Call to Change the Current Means for Determining Status of Prisoners in the Global War on Terror”, in Florida Journal of International Law, Vol. 21, No. 1, April 2009, pp. 29-91. CARVIN Stéphanie, “Caught in the Cold: International Humanitarian Law and Prisoners of War during the Cold War, in Journal of Conflict & Security Law, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2006, pp. 67-92. DROEGE Cordula, “Transfer of Detainees: Legal Framework, Non-Refoulement and Contemporary Challenges”, in IRRC, Vol. 90, No. 871, September 2008, pp. 669-701. GILLARD Emanuela-Chiara, “There’s No Place Like Home: States’ Obligations in Relation to Transfers of Persons”, in IRRC, Vol. 90, No. 871, September 2008, pp. 703-750. LEVIE Howard S., “Legal Aspects of the Continued Detention of the Pakistani Prisoners of War by India”, in AJIL, Vol. 67 (3), 1973, pp. 512-516. LEVIE Howard S., “Prisoners of War and the Protecting Power”, in AJIL, Vol. 55, 1961, pp. 374-397 MEYER Michael A., “Liability of POWs for Offences Committed Prior to Capture – The Astiz Affair”, in ICLQ, Vol. 32, 1983. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, “The Copenhagen Process on the Handling of Detainees in International Military Operations”, in Revue de droit militaire et de droit de la guerre, Vol. 3-4, No. 46, 2007, pp. 363-392. MURPHY Ray & EL ZEIDY Mohammed, “Prisoners of War: a Comparative Study of the Principles of International Humanitarian Law and the Islamic Law of War”, in International Criminal Law Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, 2009, pp. 623-649. NAERT Frederik, “Detention in Peace Operations: the Legal Framework and Main Categories of Detainees”, in Revue de droit militaire et de droit de la guerre, Vol. 1-2, No. 45, 2006, pp. 51-78 POCAR Fausto, “Violence on Civilians and Prisoners of War in the Jurisprudence of International Criminal Tribunals”, in Anuário brasileiro de direito internacional = Brazilian Yearbook of International Law, Vol. 2, No. 4, 2009, pp. 11-30. PREUX Jean de, “L’homme de confiance des prisonniers de guerre”, in IRRC, No. 414, 1953, pp. 449-475. RISIUS Gordon & MEYER Michael A., “The Protection of Prisoners of War against Insults and Public Curiosity”, in IRRC, No. 295, October 1993, pp. 288-299. SADAT Leila Nadya, “International Legal Issues Surrounding the Mistreatment of Iraqi Detainees by American Forces”, in ASIL Insight Newsletter, May-July 2004, online: http://www.asil.org/insights/insigh134.htm. TSE Ka Ho, “The Relevancy of Nationality to the Right to Prisoner of War Status”, in Chinese Journal of International Law, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 395-421. WILHELM René-Jean, “Peut-on modifier le statut des prisonniers de guerre ?”, in IRRC, No. 415 & 417, July & September 1953, pp. 516-543 & 681-690. YIN Tung, Distinguishing Soldiers and Non-State Actors: Clarifying the Geneva Convention’s Regulation of Interrogation of Captured Combatants through Positive Inducements, University of Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper, No. 08-42, September 2008, 55 pp.