Third Geneva Convention

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Enacted on August 12, 1949, the Third Geneva Convention, formally the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, is the principal treaty governing the status and treatment of prisoners of war (POW). [1] The 1949 Convention was by no means the first Geneva Convention that affected POWs. In 1864, a Convention was enacted that first covered only wounded soldiers; the law was later adapted to cover warfare at sea and prisoners of war.[2]

It went into force on October 21, 1950, but has not been honored by all participants in subsequent warfare. Concerns immediately began with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the Korean War, but that was only the first case.

"Parties to the conflict" clearly include nations in a state of declared or undeclared war; the status of non-national fighters is a hazy area. The "Detaining Power" is a party that holds persons in captivity. A "Protecting Power" is a neutral country that observes prisoner conditions and encourages compliance with the Convention.

Definition of a Prisoner of War

Article 4 of the Convention is at the heart of many current issues. Its section 2 establishes the key four criteria for what is often called a lawful combatant.

Primary categories

The Article specifies, as POWs, persons under the control of a Detaining Power:

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:

  • That of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
  • That of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
  • That of carrying arms openly;
  • 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... 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." This specifically includes authorized journalists and civilian contractors.

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."

Additional categories

In addition, Article 4 includes:

1. "Persons belonging, or having belonged, to the armed forces of the occupied country, if the occupying Power considers it necessary by reason of such allegiance to intern them, even though it has originally liberated them while hostilities were going on outside the territory it occupies, in particular where such persons have made an unsuccessful attempt to rejoin the armed forces to which they belong and which are engaged in combat, or where they fail to comply with a summons made to them with a view to internment."

2. The persons belonging to one of the categories enumerated in the present Article, who have been received by neutral or non-belligerent Powers on their territory and whom these Powers are required to intern under international law, without prejudice to any more favorable treatment which these Powers may choose to give...and, where diplomatic relations exist between the Parties to the conflict and the neutral or non-belligerent Power concerned, those Articles concerning the Protecting Power...

Medical personnel and chaplains

Article 33 defines medical personnel and chaplains as exempt from detention, although they may voluntarily stay with POWs of their country.

Determination of POW status

Article 5 states "Should any doubt arise as to whether persons, having committed a belligerent act and having fallen into the hands of the enemy, belong to any of the categories enumerated in Article 4, such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal." The nature of such tribunals, however, has been extremely controversial. During the Vietnam War, North Vietnam generally treated aircrews captured in operations against it as war criminals not eligible for POW status. During the George W. Bush Administration, it was the policy of the United States that non-national combatants were unlawful combatants.


  1. Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War, held in Geneva from 21 April to 12 August, 1949 (12 August 1949), Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights
  2. The Geneva Conventions: the core of international humanitarian law, International Committee of the Red Cross, 1-09-2006