Who Says It's Wrong to Put POWs on TV?

An international law expert discusses the history and logic of the Geneva Conventions.

Soon after several U.S. Army soldiers were taken captive in Iraq over the weekend, the Arab Al-Jazeera network aired interviews with the Americans. U.S. officials deplored the interviews as violations of the Geneva Convention.

Paul J. Magnarella, professor of anthropology and law at the University of Florida, was a legal consultant to the United Nations Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. We asked him about the proper treatment of prisoners of war and how the rules came to be.

United States officials claim that Iraq violated the Geneva Convention by showing prisoners of war on television. What's the basis for the complaint?

The Geneva Convention says prisoners of war should not be held open to public curiosity. At the time the conventions came into force, what was contemplated was parading prisoners through the streets, or holding them in places where the public could ridicule them. Given modern communication technology, simply showing them on television--not holding them out as prizes of war, not to ridicule them--would not really be a violation. We've done that. Our networks have shown Iraqi prisoners of war, and they have shown their faces.

But that was simply for informational purposes, not for public ridicule. If press coverage goes beyond that, where prisoners of war are allowed to be interviewed by foreign journalists while in captivity and scared and wounded, and that's all put on TV, it would seem to be a violation.


Prisoners of war, according to the Geneva Convention, are to be treated humanely. They are to be kept in a safe place, with adequate food and medical attention. They are not supposed to have to answer any question except name, rank, serial number and date of birth. To allow foreign journalists access to them for national TV consumption, yes, that would border on a violation. So it depends on how it's done.

Where do the current Geneva Conventions come from?

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is headquartered in Geneva, promulgated them in 1949. They codified existing laws of war and expanded them somewhat based on the World War II experience.

How far back do these wartime ethics go?

There are various principles. Some come from just-war theory, like the discriminate use of weapons so that civilians are not killed or injured. In the late 19th century, early 20th century there were two meetings in the Hague, and out of those came the Hague Conventions on the Law of War. Basically they got codified into the Geneva Conventions.

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Interview by Paul O'Donnell
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