Geneva Conventions on Prisoners of War – All You Need to Know

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Recently, the Indian Air Force (IAF) Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman who was arrested by the Pakistani rangers was returned to India. Pakistan claimed that Abhinandan was set free as a peace gesture. However, India maintained that Pakistan is obliged to release the pilot under the Geneva Conventions. It is imperative in this context to understand the provisions in Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war (PoWs).

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What is the issue?

  • 40 CRPF Jawans were killed by a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) suicide bomber in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir.
  • In retaliation, the Indian Air Force (IAF) bombed the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s biggest terror-training camp in Pakistan’s Balakot.
  • Then Pakistan sent many aircraft to the Line of Control (LoC) in retaliation for the IAF’s Balakot Strike on JeM camp = aerial confrontation began.
  • During this confrontation, Wing Commander Abhinandan had to eject over the LoC after his MiG-21 was shot by a Pakistani plane.
  • He then eventually landed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and was taken into custody by the Pakistan Army.
  • In the meantime, several videos were on circulation in which Abhinandan was being manhandled by a crowd in PoK.
  • Thus India strongly opposed Pakistan’s vulgar display of injured personnel, in violation of norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Conventions and demanded his safe and immediate return to India.

What are the Geneva Conventions?

  • The 1949 Geneva Conventions are a set of international treaties – 4 conventions, with 3 protocols added on since 1949.
  • The conventions assure that warring nations conduct themselves in a humane way with:
    • Non-combatants like civilians and medical personnel.
    • Combatants no longer actively engaged in fighting, like prisoners of war, and wounded or sick soldiers.
  • Prisoners of War (PoWs) are generally members of the armed forces of one of the parties to a conflict who fall into the hands of the opposite party.
  • Article 3 of the Geneva Convention on Treatment of PoWs deals with every type of situation that may arise for a captive and captor.
  • All nations are signatories to the Geneva conventions.
  • The Geneva Conventions have a system of “Protecting Powers” who make sure that the provisions are being implemented by the parties.
    • “Protecting powers” are countries that are not a party to the conflict and are designated by each side (parties to the conflict) to enforce the convention. But it is in only in theory.
    • In practice, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been mandated under the conventions to ensure the implementation of the law. ICRC visits prisoners, both civilian and military.

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Is the present conflict comes under the Geneva conventions?

  • The provisions of the conventions apply at the following instances:
    • In peacetime situations.
    • In declared wars.
    • In conflicts that are not recognized as war by one or more of the parties.
  • India has said that its airstrikes were a “non-military intelligence-led operation”.
  • This means that the IAF officer is a prisoner of war, and his treatment has to be based on the provisions for PoWs under the Geneva conventions.

What is prohibited under the convention?

According to the provisions, the following acts are considered as a serious breach of the convention and should be avoided by the nations:

  • Violence to life and person, especially, the murder of all types, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.
  • Taking of hostages.
  • Outrages upon personal dignity, especially, humiliating and degrading treatment.
  • The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court.
  • Any acts of vengeance against prisoners of war.

What are the rights enjoyed by PoW under the convention?

  • Respect for their persons and their honor.
  • Under captivity, a PoW should not be forced to give information of any type under physical or mental torture, or any other form of coercion.
  • Refusal to answer questions should not invite punishment.
  • A PoW must be protected from exposure to fighting.
  • Use of PoWs as hostages or human shields is forbidden.
  • A PoW should be provided with the same access to safety and evacuation facilities as those affiliated to the detaining power.
  • Access to health facilities, prayer, recreation, and exercise.
  • The detaining power should provide the correspondence between the PoW and his family without delays.
  • Right to receive books or care packages from the outside world.

What about the release of prisoners?

  • Parties to the conflict must send back or repatriate PoWs, regardless of rank, who are seriously wounded or sick, after having cared for them until they are fit to travel.
  • The conflicting nations are expected to come to an agreement to end hostilities and for the speedy return of PoWs.
  • They can also arrive at special arrangements for the improvement of conditions of the internment of PoWs, or for their release and repatriation.
  • For example,
    • At the end of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, India had more than 80,000 Pakistani troops who had surrendered to the Indian Army after the liberation of Dhaka. Under the Shimla Agreement of 1972, India agreed to release them.
    • During the Kargil War, after intense diplomatic efforts, Pakistan returned Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa, who was captured after ejecting from his burning Mi27.
  • In the Abhinandan case, Pakistan had two options: Release Abhinandan unilaterally or negotiate his release with India. Pakistan followed the former and returned Abhinandan to India.
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