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A Ukrainian soldier attends mass in Kyiv (file photo) Raphael Lafargue

How Ukraine is dealing with Russian POWs - and how they are supposed to be treated by law

Almost 1,000 POWs have been reported captured in the conflict so far.

THERE WAS INTERNATIONAL condemnation earlier this week following the emergence of multiple videos which showed captured Russian prisoners of war (POWs) giving statements denouncing their country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Several such videos have come to light since the beginning of the war, and show things like footage of blindfolded soldiers saying that the by Russia is wrong, or captured prisoners tearfully calling their mothers back home.

After footage emerged showing Russian prisoners of war being used by Ukrainian officials at a press conference, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that such prisoners must not be mistreated.

There are already hundreds of prisoners of war arising from the invasion, according to figures published by both sides in the conflict.

At the start of the month, the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said the country had captured 200 Russians – a figure that has likely risen since. A Ukrainian website purporting to count the number of Russian POWs gives an unofficial count of 378.

On the other side, Russia’s defence ministry says it has captured more than 500 Ukrainians.

International conventions dictate how these prisoners should be treated and what they can – and can’t – be used for, which apply to the situation in Ukraine because it is an armed conflict.

According to the Third Geneva Convention, POWs must at all times be “humanely treated” and cannot be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments.

They must also be protected against acts of violence or intimidation, as well as against insults and public curiosity – a ruling that sparked the concern of humanitarian groups when Russians appeared in front of Ukrainian cameras.

Nor are measures of reprisal against prisoners of war permitted by those who capture them, though POWs can be detained if they are kept safe and healthy.

They can also be used for work if they are physically fit, something Ukraine says it will do with POWs it has captured: a reporter with The Kyiv Independent saying on Tuesday that: “The government now says Russian POWs are going to ‘work to revive Ukraine’s economy’ in full compliance with international law.”

What work this exactly entails remains unclear, but the Geneva convention states that prisoners can work in the agriculture or manufacturing sectors, as well as on public works, the handling or transporting of non-military goods, in commercial business and in domestic and public utility services.

Captured soldiers are not the only ones that these rules apply to either.

Members of organised armed groups, such as resistance fighters or rebels that have a command structure considered a party in the conflict, are also entitled to prisoner of war protections if they are captured.

And in cases where populations spontaneously rise up to oppose invaders without having time to organise a command structure, those captured are also considered prisoners of war, as long as they wear their weapons visibly and respect the rules of war.

However, Amnesty International has expressed concerns that Ukraine may have violated the Geneva Convention around prisoners of war by using them in propaganda videos.

“Prisoners of war in the Russian invasion of Ukraine must have their rights respected under the Third Geneva Convention,” the organisation said on Monday, after footage showing Russian prisoners emerged from Ukraine.

The ICRC, which is the guarantor of the Geneva Conventions, also said that prisoners should be “absolutely protected against ill-treatment and exposure to public curiosity including images circulating publicly on social media”.

Experts suggested that taking and publishing images of prisoners of war may constitute a war crime.

Elizabeth Throssell, a spokeswoman for the United Nations rights office OHCHR, told the AFP news agency that images of Russian soldiers being paraded before the media “raise some concerns in relation to the respect of their dignity”.

“Such treatment does appear to be humiliating and degrading,” she said.

“It could, depending on the circumstances, be a war crime,” she warned, but “that would of course be for a court to establish”.

Marco Sassoli, a professor of international law at the University of Geneva, agreed that “images of prisoners of war where you see their face and you can recognise them is a violation of international humanitarian law”.

However, he stressed that “the simple fact of showing a picture – as long as it is not inhuman or degrading treatment – is not a war crime”.

On the other side of the war, there have been no major reports about how Ukrainians captured by Russia have been treated.  

If technological advances have made certain aspects of POW treatment a grey area since the Third Geneva Convention was published, they have also provided a new link between prisoners and their families.

The Ukrainian military has set up a website to arrange for the mothers of captured Russian soldiers to come to pick them up in Ukraine, via the Polish border.

The website contains the names, birth dates and ranks – all of which can be asked for under the Geneva convention – of captured soldiers who have been identified, as well as information about where they are located.

It also lists official phone numbers that prisoners’ relatives can get in touch with if they are seeking to be reunited, with almost 400 POWs identified at the time of writing.

“Unlike Putin’s fascists, we Ukrainians do not make war against mothers and their captured children,” Ukraine’s defence ministry has said.

Similar services include a Ukrainian helpline called “Look for your own” with an accompanying channel on the messaging service Telegram, though this was blocked by the Russian government’s media regulator late last month.

A notice asking Russian mothers to collect their sons has also appeared on the Facebook page of Ukraine’s interior ministry.

Though similarly part of the propaganda war, these efforts are much less likely to prompt an outcry from humanitarian groups than videos of POWs – and, importantly, are all valid under the Third Geneva Convention.

- Contains reporting by © AFP 2022.

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