The Puzzling Idealism of the Geneva Convention
By Bryan Caplan
I recently read the 1929 Geneva Convention for the first time. The terms are shocking. It’s almost as if a quixotic pacifist deliberately wrote the agreement to ban war by stealth. It begins with typical high-sounding diplomatic rhetoric:
Art. 2. Prisoners of war are in the power of the hostile Government, but not of the individuals or formation which captured them. They shall at all times be humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, from insults and from public curiosity. Measures of reprisal against them are forbidden.
But the specifics are high-minded as well. You have to leave the prisoners virtually all of their stuff:
Art. 6. All personal effects and articles in personal use — except arms, horses, military equipment and military papers — shall remain in the possession of prisoners of war, as well as their metal helmets and gas-masks.
You can’t feed enemy POWs any worse than your own troops, or cut rations to maintain control:
Art. 11. The food ration of prisoners of war shall be equivalent in quantity and quality to that of the depot troops. Prisoners shall also be afforded the means of preparing for themselves such additional articles of food as they may possess. All collective disciplinary measures affecting food are prohibited.
You can’t endanger sick or wounded prisoners by transporting them (unless you invoke a seemingly huge loophole):
Art. 25. Unless the course of military operations demands it, sick and wounded prisoners of war shall not be transferred if their recovery might be prejudiced by the journey.
You can’t punish any prisoner offense – including escape – with anything worse than thirty days of imprisonment. If prisoners commit multiple offenses, their thirty-day sentences are served concurrently:
Art. 50. Escaped prisoners of war who are re-captured before they have been able to rejoin their own armed forces or to leave the territory occupied by the armed forces which captured them shall be liable only to disciplinary punishment.
Art. 52. Belligerents shall ensure that the competent authorities exercize the greatest leniency in considering the question whether an offence committed by a prisoner of war should be punished by disciplinary or by judicial measures.
Art. 54. Imprisonment is the most severe disciplinary punishment which may be inflicted on a prisoner of war.
The duration of any single punishment shall not exceed thirty days.
This maximum of thirty days shall, moreover, not be exceeded in the event of there being several acts for which the prisoner is answerable to discipline at the time when his case is disposed of, whether such acts are connected or not.
Where, during the course or after the termination of a period of imprisonment, a prisoner is sentenced to a fresh disciplinary penalty, a period of at least three days shall intervene between each of the periods of imprisonment, if one of such periods is of ten days or over.
Perhaps most impressively, the convention explicitly forbids legal weaseling:
III. General Observations The conditions stated above must, in a general way, be interpreted and applied in as broad a spirit as possible.
Taken seriously, this means that even loopholes like Article 25’s “Unless the course of military operations demands it” provide little wiggle room. If you apply prisoner protections “in as broad a spirit as possible,” the obvious response to anyone who claims “the course of military operations demands the endangerment of sick and wounded prisoners” is, “Demands?! Hardly. There are plenty of other military options.”
1. Did any of the signatories of the Geneva Convention actually intend to honor it when they signed?
2. What did the signatories’ military elites think about the Convention? Weren’t generals around the world privately rasping, “What’s our top priority? Victory – or humane treatment of our enemies?!”
3. Did the Convention’s unrealistically high standards nevertheless lead to better POW treatment than realistic standards? Or is there a kind of Laffer Curve, where higher standards can actually lead to worse treatment?
Please show your work.