oa Scientia Militaria : South African Journal of Military Studies - What is a prisoner of war for?

Volume 36, Issue 2
  • ISSN : 1022-8136
  • E-ISSN: 2224-0020



This article presents a conceptual map of the purposes served by continuing custody of prisoners of war and captured non-combatants. Morally legitimate and non-controversial purposes include preventing prisoners of war from rejoining their comrades-in-arms, preventing both prisoners of war and captured non-combatants from giving material support to combatants still in the field, facilitating orderly release and repatriation at the end of hostilities, and the prosecution for war crimes. Morally illegitimate purposes include punishment, exploitation as conscript labour, recruitment or conscription as combatants, exploitation for intelligence, display as proof of victory, and ideological indoctrination. Analysis of historical cases illustrating each purpose reveal that continuing custody is often motivated by multiple purposes, both legitimate and illegitimate. What explains adoption of multiple and illegitimate purposes for continuing custody? Prisoners are available for legitimate and illegitimate purposes because neither elites nor masses within the captor state typically view prisoners as members of the moral community. Continuing custody does not alter the perceived status of the captured as aliens who cannot be intuitively invested with expectations of reciprocity. This suggests both ending custody as soon as legitimate purposes are served and bringing the captured within the moral community while in continuing captivity.

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