Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: prisoner of war (POW) from Philip's Encyclopedia

In international law, military personnel captured by the enemy in an armed conflict between states. Their treatment is expected to be humane. The 1907 Hague Convention and the Geneva Convention of 1949 widened the scope of the first international convention on prisoners of war, signed at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899.

Summary Article: prisoner of war
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Person captured in war, who has fallen into the hands of, or surrendered to, an opponent. Such captives may be held in prisoner-of-war camps. The treatment of POWs is governed by the Geneva Convention.

Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, POWs must be provided safe, sanitary accommodations, as well as food, medical care, some wages, and access to mail. Nonpartisan representatives must be allowed access to POW camps for inspection.

During World War II millions of prisoners of war were killed or died while in foreign custody. German, Russian, and Japanese treatment of POWs was particularly brutal. After the war international tribunals punished this treatment of POWs as war crimes. The Geneva Convention of 1949 broadened the definition of prisoner of war to include civilians.

During the Korean War (1950–53), United Nations forces accused the Chinese and the North Koreans of brainwashing their POWs. The North and South Vietnamese governments were also charged with violating the Geneva Convention during the Vietnam War. The Pentagon declared the last official POW dead in 1994, but its MIA (missing in action) list still has names of missing US servicemen.

Before the 17th century, war prisoners were traditionally killed or enslaved. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648), ending the Thirty Years' War, is seen by many historians as the turning point in the recognition of the status of prisoner of war. Under the terms of the treaty, prisoners were released without ransom. During the American Civil War (1861–65), German-born US political reformer Francis Lieber drafted the first set of regulations concerning prisoners of war, which was later used as a basis for the Hague Convention.

As a result of the war on terror, the classification of POWs has recently come into question. The USA has termed many detainees from Afghanistan as enemy combatants and has not afforded them the rights available under the Geneva Convention.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles

Full text Article Prisoners of War and Repatriation
Routledge Histories: The Routledge History of Global War and Society

In every military conflict, there has been the opportunity to capture members of the opposing forces. Over more than two millennia of organized warf

Full text Article Prisoners of War, Treatment of
The SAGE Encyclopedia of War: Social Science Perspectives

Prisoners of war (POWs) are as old as war itself. Since the emergence of armed conflict, certain individuals, whether combatant or noncombatant, fel

Encyclopedia of Prisons and Correctional Facilities

Prisoner of war (POW) camps are usually temporary and/or semi-permanent facilities designed to hold prisoners of war until the end of armed...

See more from Credo