Ukraine has called for fair treatment of prisoners of war, but it too has broken international rules
As in any war between two sovereign states, the Ukraine conflict has resulted in the capture of thousands of soldiers on both sides. Both sides appear to be using prisoners of war in ways that violate international law.
In May, Russia claimed to have captured almost 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers from the Azovstal Steelworks in Mariupol, who defended the area for as long as possible. Denis Pushilin, a rebel leader in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, was quoted by TASS, Russia’s state intelligence service, as saying that Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered after the battle to defend Azovstal would be tried by an international tribunal.
Before the surrender of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, a Russian defense spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, said in an interview with The guard: “It was these Nazis of the Azov Battalion who for eight years had been deliberately and with extraordinary cruelty exterminating the civilian population in the Donetsk and Luhansk republics.”
Russian Parliament Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called the captured Mariupol militants “Nazis” and “war criminals” who should be brought to justice. The Justice Ministry also asked the Supreme Court to declare the Azov regiment a “terrorist organization.” This increases the possibility that large numbers of Ukrainian soldiers will be tried and executed.
The Ukrainian authorities have indicated that they will not tolerate the abuse of Russian prisoners of war and will treat prisoners humanely. According to some reports, Russian POWs were allowed to phone their families to talk about their experiences and their actions. Ukrainian authorities have also set up a hotline for Russian families to inquire about their missing sons.
This could indicate that Ukrainians play by the rules when it comes to the treatment of prisoners of war. But there were also violations. In particular, the Ukrainian authorities have held press conferences inviting Russian prisoners of war to discuss their actions during the military invasion.
Ukrainian authorities have also posted videos on social media and messaging apps showing captured Russian soldiers being humiliated and forced to give their names and other information, including their home addresses and their parents’ names.
These acts constitute a violation of the rights of prisoners of war under Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention. The portrayal of the shame of Russian soldiers serves to bring the atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine to the attention of both international audiences and Russians at home, and depicts young Russian soldiers as both victims and perpetrators.
On the Russian side, pro-Kremlin media have published humiliating videos of prisoners of war being forced to strip and show their tattoos. There were also reports of the killing of Ukrainian prisoners of war by rebel commanders of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’.
Unusually, Ukrainian authorities have decided to prosecute captured Russian soldiers for war crimes, even as the conflict continues. The first such case involved tank commander Vadim Shysimarin, 21, who admitted shooting dead a 62-year-old civilian who was riding a bicycle. While such prosecutions are permissible, it is highly unusual to conduct such trials while a conflict is ongoing.
Armed conflicts are regulated by a number of treaties and conventions, most notably the Hague Conventions and the Geneva Conventions. Its purpose is to mitigate atrocities in war, particularly by codifying the rights of civilians and prisoners of war. There were millions of prisoners of war during World War I and World War II. The treatment of these prisoners varied widely, but many were killed outright, others mistreated, starved, or exploited for labour.
In more recent conflicts, such as Iraq and Syria, the Geneva Conventions have been routinely ignored, as civilians have been the target of indiscriminate bombings and rules on the treatment of prisoners of war have been ignored. Although Western forces were required to attack only combatants and treat prisoners humanely, violations arose, and the high-profile lawsuit at Abu Ghraib against US soldiers over mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners ended with the conviction of 11 soldiers.
Once they surrender, soldiers should be protected as “prisoners of war” under the Geneva Conventions. These apply throughout the period in which they are held. At the end of hostilities, prisoners of war must be repatriated immediately unless they are tried or serving a sentence.
Both Russia and Ukraine are signatories to international humanitarian law as codified in the four Geneva Conventions (1949) and the 1977 Additional Protocol for the Protection of Victims of Armed Conflict. Prisoners of war must not be tortured and must be protected from acts of violence, insults and public curiosity.
The imprisonment of prisoners of war should not be a punishment but is permitted to prevent their further participation in hostilities. Once the armed conflict is over, they must be released. However, it is permissible for prisoners of war to be prosecuted for war crimes – acts that clearly violate international humanitarian law relating to armed conflict.
It is clear that the treatment of prisoners of war has become another weapon in the propaganda war waged on both sides. This is another feature of a conflict that continues to violate international rules and conventions.
Christoph Bluth is Professor of International Relations and Security at the University of Bradford. This article originally appeared in The Conversation.