Does the Filming of the Russian POWs Violate the Geneva Conventions?

I recently wrote a column on why I believe that the Russians are now committing flagrant war crimes. Ukraine is the victim of those crimes and the images from that country are truly sickening.  Vladimir Putin and his government now stands as not just a pariah among nations but criminal actors who have shattered the most basic principles of international law and the Law of War. In that context, it is difficult to raise questions about the response of Ukraine, which is facing annihilation at the hands of a tyrant. However, Ukraine is reportedly showing videotapes of Russian POWs. While it pales in comparison to what is being done by the Russians, the practice may violate Article 13 of the Geneva Conventions. Despite my strong and ongoing support for Ukraine in this struggle, it is important to flag such potential violations when they occur. It also has bearing on the media in using such images.

The Ukrainians are showing weeping Russian prisoners of war who denounce Russia and declare that they were used like ‘cannon fodder’ by Russian commanders. The video airing on the networks show “Security Service of Ukraine” across the top of the images.

As civil libertarians, we are often compelled to raise concerns despite our revulsion with the conduct or views of a party. These soldiers are combatants protected by the Geneva Conventions and other treaties. Ukrainian POWs are protected under the same status.

The issue of filming POWs has long been contrary to the Geneva Conventions.

Here is the relevant provision:

Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.


Text of the provision*

(1) Prisoners of war 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 of the present Convention. In particular, no prisoner of war 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.

(2) Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.

(3) Measures of reprisal against prisoners of war are prohibited.

* Paragraph numbers have been added for ease of reference.

Likewise, the Fourth Geneva Convention, covering civilians, states:

Protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honour, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity.

Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War art. 27, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T. 3516.

Obviously, these provisions do not expressly ban filming of POWs but protects them from acts of “intimidation and … insults and public curiosity.”

The International Red Cross and other international humanitarian groups have long condemned the filming for POWs for propaganda or public messaging.

“Being exposed to ‘public curiosity’ as a prisoner of war, even when such exposure is not accompanied by insulting remarks or actions, is humiliating in itself and therefore specifically prohibited. For the purposes of the present article, ‘public’ should be interpreted as referring to anyone who is not directly involved in handling the prisoners of war, including other members of the Detaining Power. Exposure to public curiosity can take many forms. The prohibition undoubtedly covers parading prisoners in public. Moreover, prisoners must not be exposed to humiliation when they leave their camp for work, are transferred to another facility or are being repatriated. In modern conflicts, the prohibition also covers, subject to the considerations discussed below, the disclosure of photographic and video images, recordings of interrogations or private conversations or personal correspondence or any other private data, irrespective of which public communication channel is used, including the internet. Although this is seemingly different from being marched through a hostile crowd, such disclosure could still be humiliating and jeopardize the safety of the prisoners’ families and of the prisoners themselves once they are released.”

During the Iraq War and other conflicts, the United States has objected to the filming of American POWs as a violation of Article 13.

There have been debates over the use of photos where the identity of POWs are obscured but that is not the case in the Ukrainian footage.

In ACLU v. Dep’t of Def., 543 F.3d 59, 90 (2d Cir. 2008), vacated on other grounds, 130 S. Ct. 777 (2009). the court allowed the release of Abu Ghraib photos of detainee abuse as an exception to these rules but only because the identity of the individuals was obscured.

It is not clear who is in possession or took the videotapes of these POWs. Many citizens are joining the front lines in this fight. However, as difficult as it is in this fluid battlefield, Ukraine is under an obligation to seek adherence to the conventions.

One answer cannot be that the Russians deserve it. The Conventions are only viable if they are applied evenly. If we apply the rules selectively, the Russians will claim the same exceptional status in their treatment of Ukrainian POWs.

There may be a claim that these POWs volunteered to make such statements. For example, the media may claim that it was given access to these soldiers who agreed to be interviewed. The Red Cross has always been leery of such consent claims when a combatant is being held. Moreover, one article suggests that the government was behind the display, noting “Ukraine on Wednesday invited the worried mothers of Russian troops captured on the battlefield to come and collect their sons.”

We need to know more about these circumstances, but these videotapes raise a credible concern over adherence to Article 13.


179 thoughts on “Does the Filming of the Russian POWs Violate the Geneva Conventions?”

  1. Russian troops are shelling the nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, the city of Energodar.

  2. Russian soldiers loot convenience stores. Is this a violation of international law?
    The list of violations is probably a thousand miles long by now. That’s a lot of paper.

  3. Putin is causing maximum damage to Ukraine, just as a terrorist would, without resorting to nukes…at least not yet. It’s as if he is trying to set a new world record for the number of violations to international law he can make in a short span of time.

    1. “Putin is causing maximum damage to Ukraine, just as a terrorist would, without resorting to nukes…at least not yet.”
      Love it when you contradict yourself so I don’t have to.

  4. Wrong is wrong is wrong, regardless of how much weaponry the wrongdoers have to defend their wrong-doing.

  5. You can sniff out exceptions, but you shouldn’t raise them to the same level as the rule.

  6. I note that Jonathan Turley wrote nothing about the Russians parading pows from the Ukrainian military.

  7. For you Trump fans in the blogosphere who would like to believe the lie that somehow Trump’s presence in the White House served as some sort of deterrent to Putin, yesterday it was disclosed that President XI of China asked Putin to wait to invade Ukraine until after the Olympics were finished, because invading the Ukraine would have caused all sorts of problems. As you know, the Olympics were delayed for a year due to COVID. So, when Trump tells you that Putin feared him or that his fabulous talent kept Putin at bay and that Putin decided to invade Ukraine because of Biden being “weak” or “senile”, these are just more lies. In addition to that, Putin was quietly amassing money as a hedge against the sanctions he knew would be coming.

  8. Ukraine is like that homeless guy in a fast food restaurant: people might feel sorry for him, helping him in small ways, such as buying him lunch sometimes every once in a while, which is great, but what he really needs is a place to stay, but no one is willing to invite him into their home, or chip-in with other members of the community for an apartment.

  9. The Kyiv Independent: “Ukraine confirms peace talks with Russia today, on March 3. A member of the Ukrainian delegation, lawmaker David Arakhamia, said that Ukraine is looking to at least agree on humanitarian corridors.”

  10. If Putin were a rapist, and Ukraine were your daughter, would you let his weapons stop you from stopping him from raping her? Would you just stand there
    and let him have his way with her?

    1. Aninny:

      “If Putin were a rapist, and Ukraine were your daughter, would you let his weapons stop you from stopping him from raping her? Would you just stand there
      and let him have his way with her?”

      If Napolean had a B-52 at Waterloo …. Makes about as much sense as your. You’re living proof that some people should be barred from leading anything more serious than a kitty cat parade.

  11. Has the UN recognized the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government? If so, then who is Putin to overthrow it?

  12. I don’t think that Putin obsesses over obeying international law.

  13. There’s nothing wrong with civilians wanting trained, paid professional soldiers to provide their services. Civilians are the customers, and the customer is king.

  14. Mespo is willing to let evil thrive to have his own survival, to feed the crocodile with the promise that it eats him last.

    1. “Mespo is willing to let evil thrive to have his own survival, to feed the crocodile with the promise that it eats him last.”
      I don’t think acting in your own security interests after warning to your ooponent is “evil.” Was Kennedy “evil” for wanting nukes out of Cuba? I’d certainly take on Russia if it affected our national interests. But unlike you, I’m not a 13-year-old who’s insulted and butt hurt for her best gal pal and is now demanding the world kill her insulter.

  15. Ukrainians are of such character that they deserve protection from the American military more than many Americans do, such as some here in this blog.

  16. Are we to relinquish all non-NATO countries to Putin? THAT would be the crazy thing to do.

  17. Why not pretend that Putin is an active shooter, and send in a SWAT team or commandos to “take him out”.

  18. The Bush Administration violated both the Geneva Conventions and Ronald Reagan’s treaty banning torture (legally binding under U.S. federal law). The result 20 years later = no enforcement and no accountability. This week in 2022, former Bush cabinet members, invited back onto major news networks, are allowed to complain about war crimes and violations of Geneva Conventions (takes one to know one apparently). Ronald Reagan wanted all torture and cruel treatment to be investigated and prosecuted. It’s likely Reagan would have criminally prosecuted some of the Bush officials.

    Maybe we should lead by example before criticizing other law breakers? Guantanamo – most expensive taxpayer financed gulag in the world – is still open. Cointelpro style blacklisting tactics are still happening in 2022 (exceeding 7000 consecutive days of abuses). Maybe rewarding and making whole those loyal to their Oath of Office during the Bush era like Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, Thomas Drake, Chelsea Manning, etc.

Comments are closed.