The Geneva Conventions

By LtCol J. H. Olds - Originally Published February 1971

Prisoners of war are liabilities to their captors. They are also human beings with individual identities which must be protected and honored.

Contemporary society is more aware of the treatment of American prisoners of war than at any other time in modern history. Examples of the treatment of American prisoners of war is blazoned in newspaper headlines and news magazines on a daily basis; yet, generally speaking, the American public has been ignorant of U.S. policy on this subject. (The Sontay incident somewhat pinpointed the position of the Executive Branch.) Vague generalities proclaim that we follow the Geneva Conventions, that we, as a nation, ought to treat North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prisoners the same as our men are treated, and, that we should not waste our time or money on the POWs.

The latter two points are nonsense; the first is closely to the truth. But, unfortunately, not too many individuals (military or civilian) really know what that Convention is all about-the majority have never seen a full text of the Convention, few of these have read it.

Just what are the basic rights and privileges guaranteed by the Geneva Code and its subsequent amendments? What is the position of the United States regarding its tenets? Is the Code valid in the face of an enemy who does not adhere to its principles, even though he is a signatory nation?

The experience of capture is a traumatic one. Political and military psychology has conditioned the fighting man to fear his enemy. Capture is of utmost individual concern. No treaty can alleviate the anxietyl No treaty can preclude the military necessity for vital intelligence information. Each newly captured prisoner knows these facts and knows that he is completely at the mercy of his captors.

Questioning of prisoners is not limited; interrogation must be in a language that the prisoner can understand (Art 17). However, the required answers are restricted. The response of "Name, rank, serial number and date of birth" (Art 17) are the only answers required by the Code. These are for indentification purposes only. The Geneva Conventions require humane treatment at all times (Art 13) and it is at the time of capture and initial questioning periods that the situation is most crucial. The POW, most likely, has been captured during the heat of battle or shortly thereafter. Passions are high and adrenalin is pumping profusely through the body systems; reasoning, common sense and self-control are at a low ebb.

As soon as possible after the initial interrogation, POW's should be separated by sex, rank and branch of service for security purposes and, then transported to a safe zone (Art 19) to prevent any injury as a result of the ensuing battle. During transit and at all interim camps, the POW must be afforded every possible safety precaution to spare him injury; he must be afforded accommodations similar to those of his captors and be speedily moved to his permanent campsite (Art 20).

Immediately upon capture, military necessity, if not sheer self-preservation, compels us to thoroughly search the POW. Valuable intelligence information can be gained from his personal and military effects. However, these effects do not immediately become souvenirs for his captors. Indeed, personal effects of a non-military nature and military equipment for personal use and protection are to remain the property of the POW (Art 18). Personal effects of a sentimental value are especially to be protected. Money may be confiscated by order of a commissioned officer only and then must be properly identified as to its owner and sufficiently safeguarded for eventual return.

Money is a potential source of trouble. To illustrate, a North Vietnamese Army captain, by the name of Ly, was captured in the Republic of Vietnam in early 1967. By the time of his return to a POW processing facility, $300 NV had been removed from his person, along with a wrist-watch. Not only was this action a direct violation of the Geneva Conventions, but it caused this POW to remain sullen, belligerent and uncooperative. His possessions were soon recovered and returned to him. The outward change in attitude was manifested in the voluntary answers to interrogation. The information received was worth far more than the monetary or souvenir value of the money. The real value was probably measured in American lives saved.

Regardless of the circumstances of capture, the POW should be within the confines of a regular POW camp at the soonest practicable time. Here a whole new world awaits him; a world that confines him within certain limits, that is regimented, that levies certain requirements upon him, yet offers him certain protections and privileges. He is removed from his own military environment, yet he is subject to military rules and regulations. He is confined, yet, he has certain freedoms. He is a prisoner, yet, he maintains certain rights.

The first thing that happens upon arrival at the permanent POW camp is to determine whether or not the particular individual is, in fact, a prisoner of war within the definition and criteria of the Convention. The definition is explicit:


A. Prisoners of War, in the sense of the present Convention, are persons belonging to one of the following categories, who have fallen into the power of the enemy:

(1) Members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict, as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces.

(2) Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfill the following conditions:

(a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;

(b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;

(c) that of carrying arms openly;

(d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

(3) Members of regular armed forces who profess allegiance to a government or an authority not recognized by the Detaining Power.

(4) Persons who accompany the armed forces without actually being members thereof, such as civilian members of military aircraft crews, war correspondents, supply contractors, members of labor units or of services responsible for the welfare of the armed forces, provided that they have received authorization from the armed forces which they accompany, who shall provide them for that purpose with an identity card similar to the annexed model.

(5) Members of crews, including masters, pilots and apprentices, of the merchant marine and the crews of civil aircraft of the Parties to the conflict, who do not benefit by more favorable treatment under any other provisions of international law.

(6) Inhabitants of a non-occupied territory, who on the approach of the enemy spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading forces, without having had time to form themselves into regular armed units provided they carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war.

If the captive does not fit into one of the enumerated categories, or if his status is doubtful, he must be referred to a tribunal to determine his exact status and whether or not he is entitled to the protection of the Convention (Art 5). During the interim, however, he will be afforded every right of a POW until his final status is determined.

His place of confinement must be clean, neat, with healthy surroundings; he must have adequate protection from the elements; and, he must be confined on land (Art 22)-no prison ships or "Devil's Islands." Camps are designed to group together POWs of the same branch of service, nationality and customs (Art 22). All prisoners must be afforded every possible protection from the implements of war (Art 23) as well as protection from public insults and curiosity (Art 13).

"A man's home is his castle" and the POWs' home approaches that plateau. His place of confinement is to be equal to that of the Detaining Power's troops in the same locality (Art 25). Not only that, but, the particular habits and customs of the POWs must also he taken into consideration and provided for. He must be protected against dampness and provided with appropriate heating and lighting facilities. Of course, sexes must be segregated and provided with separate quarters and facilities.

Messing, food, facilities and preparation of food, has been a constant problem area with prisoners since the first Neanderthal man held another against his will. The POW will be provided rations of a quality, quantity and variety to ensure his good health and to maintain his weight and nutritional levels (Art 26). The simplest method is to provide the same rations as those fed the troops in the area. Additionally, however, it is incumbent upon his captors to take into account the habitual diet of the prisoners. In dealing with Asians, it is important to supplement each meal with an additional ration of rice. Laboring prisoners must be fed greater quantities with higher nutritional levels to compensate for their physical endeavors.

Prisoner labor utilized in the preparation of meals is not only permissible but, it is encouraged (Art 26). Quite often POW camps have their own gardens to provide fresh vegetables for the camp mess. If this is the case, the POWs will be provided with the means to prepare this food themselves, or, prepare any other food in their possession.

Adequate drinking water will be provided and available and, collective disciplinary measures affecting food will not be tolerated (Art 26).

Clothing and footwear are important to the POW, as to any other individual. Where possible, captured uniforms of the POWs' nation should be supplied for his use, if suitable to the climate (Art 27). In any event, it is the responsibility of the Detaining Power to ensure appropriate and adequate clothing for the POWs it retains.

Medical and dental facilities for the POWs are mandatory (Chap III) as well as providing the availability and facilities for the free exercise of religious activities (Chap V). At a minimum, a monthly medical inspection must be conducted where each prisoner is checked by a physician for specific diseases including tuberculosis, malaria, venereal disease and other contagious diseases (Art 31). Additionally, the physician shall check for cleanliness and the general health and nutrition of each prisoner. Adequate records of individual examinations, records of weight and treatment of the POW should be maintained on each man.

At the present time, POW mail is a matter of concern throughout this nation. American POW's held by North Vietnam have little or no mail privileges; yet, the Geneva Convention (to which North Vietnam became a signatory nation in 1957) specifically provided that POW's may write two letters and four postal cards per month (Art 71). Specific forms are to be provided for this purpose.

Mail may be censored by the Detaining Power, but only once (Art 76) prior to being placed into the international postal system postage free (Art 74). Disciplinary measures involving POW mail is expressly forbidden (Art 71). Additionally, POWs who have not heard from their next of kin for one reason or another for an excessive amount of time, may, at their own expense, send a telegram.

"At their own expense" raises the issue of where does the money come from? The Detaining Power is required to grant each POW a monthly advance of pay for his personal use (Art 60). The minimum amounts fixed by the Geneva Convention are:

What do POWs do with this money? First of all, pay. is not necessarily paid in hard cash but is credited to the prisoner's account. It was mentioned ahove that they could send telegrams at their own expense. They also have a PX available where they can purchase foodstuffs, soap, tobacco and other items of personal use (Art 28). Any profit made will be utilized for the POWs' benefit much the same as our own United States post exchanges operate to the benefit of the special services fund.

There are many other interesting provisions of the Geneva Conventions worth being familiar with. For example: officer POW's are treated according to their rank (Art 44); officers cannot be compelled to work (Art 49); the convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War must be published and constantly available in a language the POW understands (Art 41); prisoners may be compelled to work in nonmilitary and non-dangerous endeavors (Art 50) ; or, he may voluntarily work for private persons for extra compensation (Art 57) ; complaints may be made by the POW's to the Camp Administration or directly to the International Committee of the Red Cross without fear of repercussion (Art 78); military saluting at the camp is required (Art 39); certain penal and disciplinary sanctions are authorized (Art 82 & 89) ; and, that medical corpsmen MAY carry weapons and not lose their special identity as medical personnel with the attendant privileges (GWS Art 22).

The United States has gone to great lengths to ensure compliance with the Geneva Conventions. The US POW Camp in the I Corps area of Vietnam provided every possible facility for the prisoners and in many areas exceeded the requirements of the Convention. As an indicator of the completeness of this facility, the comments of the International Committee of the Red Cross Acceptance Inspection Team are noteworthy. The singular comment was "My word, .they're living better than the Red Cross!"-and indeed, the POWs were living better than the Red Cross and better by far than their captors and guards.

Now it is appropriate to answer the question about what is our national position on this matter and, to determine if it is worthwhile to treat POWs in this fashion; especially, when we fully realize that our enemy reduces American POWs to the lowest possible human level.

First of all, the United States is not a revengeful type of nation. This great country was not founded on a bedrock of hate and resentment but, rather on Christian/Judaic principles. From our very inception, and from our very first documents, we as a people emphasize the basic rights of individuals and the freedom of man. We stress that man has "certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." With such an emphasis as our continuous national policy, it is inconceivable that we can even consider treating POWs in any other manner. Such a double standard would eat away at the very foundations of our national society.

For almost two full centuries the United States has offered itself as the example of the epitome of a civilized nation-for almost two full centuries the United States has existed as a Republic based upon human rights and the importance of singular individuals. We feel that this nation is the greatest nation in the history of the world; and, the nation with the most promising future for mankind. Under these circumstances, we are responsible to guard against slippage in our progress and any tarnishing of our national image, lest we lose our position as leader of the free world. If we fail to personify our image in any manner, in peace or war, then in reality we are not the nation we think we are. Treatment of POWs is a particular area where our true nature as a people is mirrored to the rest of the world. To fail to meet our responsibilities in this area, would only serve as a detriment to all we profess as a nation.

A nation that is a world leader amongst nations, must shoulder many responsibilities of significant magnitude, just as a military leader must. In the instant case, the United States has accepted the mantle of the humanitarian leader of the world. As such, it becomes our mandate to not only lead, but, to set the example and ultimate criteria. In regards to POWs if we were to drop our standards, we would be in a position where we would be unable to demand equal treatment of others. Imagine the reaction in North Vietnam, with its current degradations, if we were to lower our standards! It makes no difference if the conflict is a legally declared war or not (Art 2); we cannot renounce the Convention pro tempore or during any armed conflict (Art 142); and, we cannot morally renounce the provisions of the Convention and still expect any form of decent treatment for American POWs held by our enemy; nor, to maintain our international integrity.

Morally the issue assumes an even greater magnitude. Here we are-the most advanced nation in the world; a leader in every respect: We cannot possibly permit ourselves to recede into the Dark Ages when prisoners were treated in an unimaginable inhuman manner.

Then too, our nation voluntarily agreed to the Conventions and acceded to uphold their contents. These documents are only four of many international agreements to which we are a signatory nation. If we were to attempt to denounce this agreement, or if we fail to guide our national course based on our agreement, then no other international document we have agreed to would retain any significance whatsoever. The United Nations, NATO, SEATO, CENTO, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, mutual defense pacts, non-aggression pacts, etc. etc. would all be meaningless and the world would consider the United States in the same light as our prime adversary. It is significant to the other nations of the world that the United States is one nation that HAS and WILL honor its commitments.

Prisoners of war are liabilities to the man in the field of battle and to the detaining power who must care for them until the cessation of hostilities. They are a valuable asset to the intelligence personnel and to a nation who can face up to its commitments in the face of adversity. The United States, in its position amongst the world nations, is committed, morally and legally, to the humane treatment of POWs. We, as members of the military, must accept the axiom that the military is subordinate to the body politic, and must carry out the aims of our government. Militarily, we benefit from the intelligence received and from the weight of world opinion in our cause.

Henri Dunant's vision of warfare without human suffering can never come to pass. By its very nature war is the pitting of individuals against each other in mortal combat. Once the action is over and the smoke has cleared the field of battle, the immediate issues cease to exist. Soldiers become human beings again and assume their personal identity. The Geneva Conventions were developed to ensure this individual identity would be protected and honored. As a nation, the United States has always been a leader in this endeavor-a basic fact in which we can all take personal pride.


In 1859 a young Swiss National, employed by a firm in Algiers, was travelling through the northern portion of Italy. At this time the Italian Wars of Independence were in progress. This young Swiss Citizen, by the name of (Jean) Henri Dunant, was delayed in his travels by the armies of Louis Napoleon III of France (allied to Victor Emanuel II of Piedmont) and Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, who were gathering in the area of Solferine on the Plains of Lombardy. The Austrians had suffered a defeat at the hands of the same opposing force in the battle of Magenta on 4 June. Now on 24 June, the two armies of 100,000 men each faced off against each other, ready for the showdown.

As the two armies drew the lines of battle, Henri Dunant positioned himself in an area to view the encounter. After a bloody day-long battle, the Allied assault broke the center of the entrenched Austrian lines and Franz Josef withdrew. Late in the afternoon, Henri Dunant viewed a battlefield strewn with 20,000 casualties on EACH side of the line. Such a sight of 40,000 men, dead and wounded, struck the very heart of Mr. Dunant. He proceeded immediately to his home in Geneva, resigned from his position, and pondered methods to alleviate such occurrences.

Henri Dunant committed his thoughts to paper. Before long he had compiled a small booklet of less than 100 pages which the entitled Un Souvenir de Solferino (Memories of Solferino). The booklet was published in 1862 and was distributed throughout the European Continent. The booklet soon caught the attention of several of the crown heads of that continent.

Meanwhile, Henri Dunant gathered together a group of interested citizens (a general, a lawyer, a doctor, and a businessman) who shared his feelings about the necessity to humanize warfare, and, to alleviate needless pain and suffering. The group formalized their thoughts and drafted a document proposing certain courses of action to accomplish this endeavor. Various states of Europe were invited to Geneva for a conference on the subject. As a result, in 1863 the first international meeting was held; and, during the second such international meeting in 1864, 12 nations voluntarily agreed to the proposals of the convention and bound themselves together in an effort to control the unnecessary horrors of war. Because of the initiative of the Swiss citizens, the Swiss members of the conference were asked to be the custodians of the Treaty. The Swiss flag, with reversed colors, became the symbol of the group and that emblem remains today as the distinctive mark of those involved in humanitarian endeavors.

During this same period of time, the United States was struggling through its disasterous Civil War. The hardships and horrors of this conflict were met with the stark realities of the memories of Andersonville and other such prison camps, in the minds of a progressing American citizenry. It was these factors, bearing on the conscience of the United States, that led this nation on 1 May 1882, to become a signatory to Henri Dunant's first efforts at an international agreement on the treatment of fighting men as human beings, with all the attendant rights and privileges.

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