Prisoner of war

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Prisoner of war (POW) is a status generally accepted as being defined by the Third Geneva Convention. It applies to individuals who have come under the control of an enemy, usually assumed to be a nation-state[1] There is rarely a question of POW status for individuals who are demonstrably part of the regular armed forces of a party to the conflict.

The Convention does recognize potential POW status for "members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces." By "part of...", it implies the militia or volunteer corps is responsible to the chain of command of the Party. Individuals such as supply contractors, journalists, and other noncombatants accompanying the force, if not qualified for a more favorable status, are to be recognized as POWs if they carry identification documents stating they are under the authority of a regular force. Medical personnel and chaplains are exempt from imprisonment, although they may elect to serve combatant POW.

Difficulties begin to arise when individuals are not clearly members of a regular force. The Convention, however, recognizes them as POWs if:

  1. They are commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
  2. They wear fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
  3. They carry their arms openly;
  4. Their operations comply with the laws and customs of war

In common usage, anyone complying with the four conditions above is a lawful combatant.

Legal proceedings against POWs


  1. Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War (12 August 1949), Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Article 4