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What is Geneva Convention of 1949? What does it say about PoWs?

Pakistan has said it has captured an IAF pilot. According to the Geneva Convention, he is to be treated as a prisoner of war

SNS | New Delhi | Updated :

India has lodged a strong protest with Pakistan over the “unprovoked act of aggression”, including violation of the Indian airspace by Pakistan Air Force and targeting of Indian military posts. The Union Ministry of External Affairs said India also strongly objected to the “vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force” by Pakistan in violation of all norms of the International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention.

The Geneva Convention is invoked when there is an international armed conflict. It’s a group of laws that seek to protect and ensure humane treatment of wounded or captured military personnel, medical personnel and non-military civilians during a war.

Pakistan has said it has captured an IAF pilot and he is in its custody. According to the Geneva Convention, he is to be treated as a prisoner of war who must be released once the hostilities end.

The Geneva Conventions were signed on 12 August 1949 after a series of international diplomatic meetings that agreed on a number of resolutions — 11 to be precise. The Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflicts was the main outcome of the Geneva Conventions. It was a group of international laws that originated in 1864 (brought into being by the newly created International Committee of the Red Cross) and were significantly updated in 1949 after World War II.

READ | India lodges protest over targeting of military posts by Pakistan; vulgar display of injured Indian pilot

Three former conventions were revised to arrive at the final Geneva Convention. These were the Geneva Convention of 1906 for the Relief of the Wounded and Sick in Armies in the Field, the Xth Hague Convention of 1907 for the adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention, and the 1929 Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War. The diplomatic meetings also gave a deep thought to protection of civilians. In the absence of a convention for non-combatant civilians affected by armed conflicts, there had been grievous consequences, especially during the World War II. Germany had carried out horrific acts in the military prison camps and civilian concentration camps during WWII.

In 1977, two protocols were added, expanding the rules. Increasing protections for civilians, military workers and journalists during international armed conflicts, Protocol I banned the use of weapons causing “superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering” or “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment”.

Protocol II made it clear every one taking up arms should be treated humanely and no one in command should issue an order for “no survivors”. It also said children should be well cared for and educated.

In 2005, a third protocol was adopted recognising an additional emblem, the red crystal, apart from the red cross and the red crescent.

A total of 196 countries have signed the 1949 Geneva Convention.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been the sponsor of the Geneva Convention since the beginning.

READ | Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman was consultant for Mani Ratnam film about IAF pilot captured in Pak

What does the Geneva Convention say about PoWs

Article 13 of the Geneva Convention states that PoWs must at all times be “humanely treated”. “Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach…,” it says, adding no PoW may be subjected to physical mutilation or to “medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are not justified by the medical, dental or hospital treatment of the prisoner concerned and carried out in his interest”.

Likewise, it adds, PoWs must at all times be protected, “particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity”. The rules prohibit measures of reprisal against them.

The Geneva Convention also says POWs cannot be prosecuted. “Their detention is not a form of punishment, but only aims to prevent further participation in the conflict. They must be released and repatriated without delay after the end of hostilities. The detaining power may prosecute them for possible war crimes, but not for acts of violence that are lawful under International Humanitarian Law,” it says.

POWs cannot be subjected to torture, physical or mental, for any reason. If the captured person does not answer a question, he or she must not be “threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind”.

The Article 17 of Geneva Convention says prisoners of war who, due to their physical or mental condition, are unable to state their identity, must be handed over to the medical service. “The identity of such prisoners shall be established by all possible means, subject to the provisions of the preceding paragraph. The questioning of prisoners of war shall be carried out in a language which they understand,” it says.

The convention also states that all PoWs must be allowed to keep with them their personal effects, such as any correspondence and parcels that have arrived for them, and take with them all personal effects barring military equipment and military documents. The POW also must always have identity documents on his or her person.

The rules also say POWs should be evacuated to a site far away from the place of capture, with the evacuation done in a humane way.

What is International Humanitarian Law?

The International Humanitarian Law or IHL is a set of laws that lay down guidelines on can and cannot be done during conflicts involving two or more nations.

IHL applies to all parties to an armed conflict, including civilians, injured combatants, and soldiers captured or no longer an active  participant in the hostilities.

IHL rules at a glance 

Care for the injured and sick, whether friends or enemies

Humane treatment of prisoners

Protection of civilians’ life and property

Respect for red cross, red crescent, and red crystal emblems

Attacking only military targets

No physical or moral coercion against protected persons to obtain information