International humanitarian law and policy on


The Third Geneva Convention protects prisoners of war. It establishes their rights and sets out detailed rules for their treatment and release. International humanitarian law also protects other people deprived of their liberty in connection with armed conflict.

A child inmate in Mopti arrest house in Mali.

Detention and the law

The Third Geneva Convention provides a wide range of protections for prisoners of war (POWs). It establishes their rights and sets down detailed rules for their treatment and eventual release. International humanitarian law (IHL) also protects other persons deprived of their liberty as a result of armed conflict.

The rules protecting prisoners of war are specific and were first detailed in the 1929 Geneva Convention. They were refined in the Third Geneva Convention, following the lessons of the Second World War, as well as in Additional Protocol I.

POW status only applies in international armed conflict. POWs are usually members of the armed forces of one of the parties to a conflict who fall into the hands of the adverse party. The Third Geneva Convention also classifies other categories of persons who have the right to POW status or may be treated as POWs.

POWs cannot be prosecuted for taking a direct part in hostilities. 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 IHL.

POWs must be treated humanely in all circumstances. They are protected against any act of violence, as well as against intimidation, insults and public curiosity. IHL also sets out minimum conditions of detention covering such issues as accommodation, food, clothing, hygiene and medical care.

The Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol I also provide extensive protection for civilian internees during international armed conflicts. If justified by imperative reasons of security, a party to the conflict may subject civilians to assigned residence or to internment. Therefore, internment is a security measure and cannot be used as a form of punishment. This means that each interned person must be released as soon as the reasons which necessitated their internment no longer exist.

Rules governing the treatment and conditions of detention of civilian internees under IHL are very similar to those applicable to POWs.

In non-international armed conflicts, Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions, together with Additional Protocol II, provides that persons deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the conflict must also be treated humanely in all circumstances. In particular, they are protected against murder, torture and cruel, humiliating or degrading treatment. Those detained for participation in hostilities are not immune from criminal prosecution under the applicable domestic law for having done so


Torture and all other forms of cruel, inhuman, degrading or humiliating treatment are banned under both IHL and international human rights law.

The ICRC strives to prevent these practices and put an end to them where they do occur.

Security detention

Security detention is an exceptional measure that may be taken in armed conflict. Administrative detention of persons believed to represent a threat to state security is increasingly common outside armed conflict. In both cases, there is insufficient protection for the rights of the people affected.

From the Humanitarian Law and Policy blog