Geneva Convention definition
A prisoner of war (POW) is a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who is imprisoned by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict.
The laws apply from the moment a prisoner is captured until he is released or repatriated. One of the main provisions of the convention makes it illegal to torture prisoners, and states that a prisoner can only be required to give his name, date of birth, rank and service number (if applicable).
Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention protects captured military personnel, some guerrilla fighters and certain civilians.
In principle, to be entitled to prisoner of war status, the captured servicemember must have conducted operations according to the laws and customs of war, e.g. be part of a chain of command, wear a uniform and bear arms openly. Thus, franc-tireurs, terrorists and spies may be excluded. In practise these criteria are not always interpreted strictly. Guerrillas, for example, may not wear a uniform or carry arms openly, yet are typically granted POW status if captured. However, guerrillas or any other combatant may not be granted the status if they try to use both the civilian and the military status. Thus, the importance of uniforms -or as in the guerrilla case, a badge- to keep this important rule of warfare.
The status of POW does not include unarmed non-combatants who are captured in time of war; they are protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention rather than the Third Geneva Convention.
The treatment of prisoners of war can depend on the resources, social attitudes and policies of the governments and militaries in question. For instance, in World War II, Soviet prisoners of Nazi Germany and German prisoners of the Soviet Union were often treated with neglect and brutality. The Nazi Regime regarded Soviet POW's as being of a lower racial order, and many Soviet POW's were consequently subject to enforced labour or were murdered in keeping with The Third Reich's policy of racial purification. On the Soviet side, German POW's were regarded as having forfeit their right to fair treatment, because of the widespread crimes committed against Soviet civilians during their invasion campaign. This combined with the fact that much of the Soviet workforce was now in the hands of Nazi Germany, also lead to employment of many German POW's as forced labour (this forced labour was in keeping with that imposed on Soviet civilians for a range of criminal and political crimes). POWs of the western Allies such as the United States and United Kingdom had treatment closer to the Geneva Conventions.
During the Vietnam War, American servicemembers captured by North Vietnam were routinely beaten and tortured in violation of their status as prisoners of war. Similar treatment occurred by Iraqi forces during the Gulf War and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the United States armed forces were placed in a very unfavorable light as evidence was uncovered of U.S. abuse of prisoners of war.
By contrast, POW facilities held by Allied nations like the USA, United Kingdom and Canada usually complied strictly to the Geneva Conventions, which sometimes created conditions POWs found were more comfortable than their own side's barracks. This approach was decided based on the idea that having POWs well treated meant a ready supply of healthy and cooperative laborers for farmwork and the like, as allowed by the Geneva Conventions, which eased personnel shortages. There were also the benefits of a lower chance of having to deal with escapes or prisoners causing camp disruptions. The comparatively favourable conditions also made interrogations of enemy personnel easier and more productive. In addition, as word spread among the enemy about the conditions of North American POW camps and it became clear that the war was lost, it encouraged surrenders which helped further Allied military goals efficiently without the expense of combat. Furthermore, while there were initially complaints of coddling the enemy, the Allied population largely grew to support this approach which may have raised morale amoung the Allied personnel when by reinforcing the idea that this humane treatment of prisoners showed that their side was morally superior to the enemy. The fact that the above nations never suffered invasion by their enemies helped avoid the kind of enmity towards their prisoners that the Soviet Union had.
The United States uses the term enemy prisoner of war (EPW) for hostile forces, reserving the term prisoner of war for its own or Allied forces.
Some groups define Prisoner of War in accordance with their internal politics and world view. Since the special rights of a prisoner of war, granted by governments, is the result of multilateral treaties, these definitions have no legal effect and those claiming rights under these definitions would legally be considered common criminals under an arresting jurisdiction's laws. However, it must be noted that in most cases these groups don't demand such rights.
Anarchist Black Cross Federation definition
Anarchist Black Cross Federation has defined the term in its constitution (http://abcf.net/abc/pdfs/constitution.pdf) as "those persons incarcerated as a result of political beliefs or actions consciously undertaken and intended to resist exploitation and oppression, and/or hasten the implementation of an egalitarian, sustainable, ethical, classless society, predicated on self determination and maximization of all people's freedom."
November Coalition definition
November Coalition uses the term Prisoner of War to also refer to Prisoner of Drug War or Prisoner of War on Drugs. Every person charged with the crime under the statues of the Drug War fits that definition, whether or not that individual's arrest and conviction was legal.
- Richard D. Wiggers "The United States and the Denial of Prisoner of War (POW) Status at the End of the Second World War," Militargeschichtliche Mitteilungen 52 (1993) pp. 91-94.