Explainer: What the Geneva Convention says about treatment of Prisoners of War

The Indian government on Wednesday evening confirmed that one pilot was in Pakistan's custody and also objected to the injured personnel's 'vulgar display' in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Explainer: What the Geneva Convention says about treatment of Prisoners of War
Explainer: What the Geneva Convention says about treatment of Prisoners of War
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The Ministry of External Affairs on Wednesday confirmed that one Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot was in Pakistan's custody after the IAF's MiG 21 bison aircraft was shot down by the neighbouring country. Although the Indian government had initially stated that the pilot was missing in action, a statement was issued on Wednesday evening, confirming his capture. Pakistan, however, had stated that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured earlier in the day. 

As an IAF pilot has been captured by Pakistan, he is to be treated as a prisoner of war (POW), according to the Geneva Conventions. A POW must be released once hostilities between both sides end.

Laid down in 1929 and refined in 1949 after the World War II, the Geneva Conventions lay down the guidelines which members of the UN must follow in order to protect Human Rights.

There are four Geneva Conventions. The third Geneva Convention define and detail who can be considered a prisoner of war and how the POW must be treated.

The status of prisoner of war can be applicable only in an international armed conflict. POWs are generally members of the armed forces or those attached with the members of the armed forces, who fall into the hands of the adverse party during a conflict.

Article 13 of the third Geneva Convention states that POWs must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the country, under whose captivity, the POW is in, which leads to death or seriously endangers the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited. This will also be as a serious breach of the Convention.

The POWs cannot be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are not justified by the medical, dental or hospital, which is treating the POW in question. It also prohibits POWs from being intimidated and insulted and be subjected to public curiosity.

In its statement, the Indian government said, "India also strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention. It was made clear that Pakistan would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defence personnel in its custody. India also expects his immediate and safe return."

The conventions also state that 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 International Humanitarian Law,” it states.

POWs cannot be subjected to physical or mental torture, or any other form of coercion to secure from them information of any kind. If the POW refused to answer any question, the POW must not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment.

Prisoners of war who, owing to their physical or mental condition, are unable to state their identity, must be handed over for medical treatment. It also states that all personal effects except for military equipment and military documents must remain with the POW. The POW must always have identity documents on his or her person.

POWs must be evacuated to a site far away from the site of capture and the evacuation must be done in a humane way.

During the 1999 Kargil War, Flight Lieutenant K Nachiketa was a 26-year-old fighter pilot, who was assigned the task of hitting Pakistani posts in Kargil at altitudes in excess of 17,000 feet. He was captured by Pakistani armed forces.

Nachiketa flew a MiG-27 fighter bomber, which flamed out during aerial operations, crashed and fell into PoK. Nachiketa was a POW for eight days and was in the custody of Pakistan. Upon his return, he had revealed how he was physically and mentally tortured by Pakistani forces. In an interview with NDTV in 2016, Nachiketa had said, "The torture was quite bad. There comes a point where you think 'death is simpler,' but fortunately for me, the third-degree part, which is the last part, didn't start for me."

But while Nachiketa was released, other Indian defence personnel, who were captured by Pakistani armed forced during the Kargil war did not survive.

Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja of the IAF, who was trying to locate Nachiketa, was shot dead by the Pakistani soldiers after he ejected from his aircraft that had been hit by a missile. 

In another instance, Captain Saurabh Kalia and five other soldiers - Sepoys Arjun Ram, Bhanwar Lal Bagaria, Bhika Ram, Moola Ram and Naresh Singh - were tortured while in Pakistan's custody. Their mutilated bodies were handed over to India after 15 days. 

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