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GCIII Commentary: protecting the honour of prisoners of war

Analysis / GCIII Commentary / Generating Respect for IHL / Law and Conflict / Sexual Violence 9 mins read

GCIII Commentary: protecting the honour of prisoners of war
The Third Geneva Convention (GCIII) provides a framework of rules for the protection of prisoners of war, including that they are ‘entitled in all circumstances to respect for their persons and their honour’ (Article 14). The obligation to respect a prisoner of war’s honour – like the Geneva Conventions as a whole – draws upon the highest notions of humanity. It reminds us that even in the drudgery, the violence, and the darkness of war, there is something innate in every person that is worthy of respect and entitles them to protection. Interpreting what ‘honour’ means, however, has its challenges. In this post, part of the ‘GCIII Commentary’ blog series marking the ICRC’s updated Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC detention delegate Jemma Arman explores why honour and prisoner of war protection are so fundamentally intertwined, as well as some of the challenges of finding modern meaning for the term.


Prisoners of war have, by definition, ‘fallen into the power of the enemy’, finding themselves in a position of intrinsic susceptibility. The motivations for the ‘enemy’ to protect their prisoners are complex, manifold and overlapping, rooted in ethics, religious codes and teachings, practical considerations of reciprocity, and concepts of chivalry and respect.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, modern codifications of the laws of war developed, and it was increasingly agreed between States that certain fighters were to be respected and protected upon their capture. Building upon horrific experiences from the First and Second World Wars, States agreed upon a detailed framework for the protection of prisoners of war in what is now the Third Geneva Convention. Article 14 of the Convention embodies this evolution, requiring that prisoners of war are entitled ‘in all circumstances’ to respect for their person and their honour.

The concept that a prisoner’s honour is to be respected flows through the Third Geneva Convention. It is specifically elaborated on in certain provisions that include allowing prisoners of war to retain and wear their badges of rank and distinction, prohibiting the assigning of prisoners of war to humiliating work and that in case of the death of prisoners of war, prisoners of war be ‘honorably’ interred according to the rites of the religion to which they belong. The obligation to respect the honour of a prisoner of war is also inherently intertwined with many other protections provided by the Third Geneva Convention. The obligation to ensure that prisoners of war have sufficient clothing, for example, must be read to include a requirement that such clothing not be humiliating.

Contemporary challenges in interpreting the concept of honour 

The Third Convention places honour at the centre of protections for prisoners of war. This begs the question: what does ‘honour’ mean in the 21st century? There are at least three challenges to overcome in discerning a modern protective understanding of the term honour and how it is to be respected while detaining prisoners of war.

First is the reality that the term ‘honour’ is not as commonly used as a concept as it was previously (see for example, the usage trends on Google’s Ngram Viewer).[1] It can conjure up a rather old-fashioned picture of the world, of knights, chivalry, and damsels in distress. Imagine Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg on his 80-day adventure around the world, facing off against the ‘Yankee’, Colonel Stamp Proctor, to avenge the insult to his honour.  Or Shakespeare’s Henry V riling up his men on Saint Crispin’s day, declaring ‘if it be a sin to covert honour, I am the most offending soul alive’. For musical lovers, it might be the dramatic dual scenes of the acclaimed Broadway hit Hamilton. These sensationalized notions of honour could tempt one into thinking that the respect for honour is antiquated and divorced from the realities of modern warfare.

The concept of honour, as utilized by the Third Geneva Convention, provides the basis of core protections for all prisoners of war, and the meaning ascribed to it cannot be narrowly limited to any one historic notion of honour. Interpreting the concept of honour requires us to move beyond mere caricatures and seek the true essence of the term as it applies to all people. The Third Convention reflects and strengthens the universality of the notion of honour: all prisoners of war, regardless of rank, race, nationality, religion, political opinion, gender, age, or disability, are entitled to this respect.

The second difficulty is that notions of honour can be gendered. ‘Honour’ has been used to justify violence against women in so-called ‘honour crimes’. Johanna Bond, for example writes that while a man’s honour is his own, a woman’s honour in some circumstances is considered to be held collectively by the family, or even the community. Further, while a man’s honour may be linked to his courage or his sense of duty, a woman’s honour may be linked entirely to her sexuality and perceived chastity. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically identifies sexual violence as an attack against a woman’s ‘honour’. The implication is that a woman’s ‘honour’ – and along with it, her human value and social worth – are diminished if she is a survivor of sexual violence.

Honour crimes existed in nature, if not in name, at the time of drafting the Geneva Conventions, but given the decrease in the standard usage of the term, they perhaps come more readily to mind today when one thinks about ‘honour.’ In interpreting the concept of protecting the honour of a person, we must ensure internal consistency with another core protection provided in Article 14, namely that ‘women shall be treated with all the regard due to their sex and shall in all cases benefit by treatment as favorable as that granted to men.’ Any reference to honour in the Geneva Conventions must be consistent with this prohibition of adverse distinction on the basis of sex.

The third challenge is the very real possibility that the concept of honour does not translate equally in every culture. Michael Boiger et al’s study on emotional frequency on anger and shame covers an interesting discussion, for example, between the similarities and difference in the Turkish value of honour vis-à-vis the Japanese value of ‘saving face’. While both emphasize the external aspect of a person’s worth, honour is said to be easily lost and emerges in a competitive environment, while ‘face’ belongs in a more stable social environment.

This example serves a reminder that honour may not mean the same thing to all people, and that any interpretation of the notion of honour – as well as the obligation to respect it – must be sufficiently flexible to address different cultural expressions of this concept. This is not a new challenge; the Geneva Conventions when drafted was well alive to notions of different needs for different people. In addition to the general prohibition against adverse discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, religious beliefs, political opinions or other similar distinctions, the Convention contains many particular provisions requiring the background of a prisoner to be respected.[2]

Finding a modern meaning

A modern interpretation of the term ‘honour’ needs to be stripped back to its core – that to respect a person’s honour is to respect their self-worth, and also the value of that person in the eyes of others.[3]  The concept of honour is not limited to a particular time or a specific kind of battle, but instead is owed universally to all prisoners of war, in all international armed conflicts. The stipulation that it must be respected ‘in all circumstances’ indicates that the obligation continues even if it is not being respected by the adversary.

The term ‘honour’ must also be interpreted in the context of the other fundamental protections of the Third Convention, in particular in relation to the obligation to respect prisoners’ physical and moral person, and to protect them against humiliation (see Articles 13 and 14). This means taking an approach that is context specific and alive to the range of factors that give honour meaning, including the cultural, social, or religious background of a person, as well as their gender and age.

The protection of prisoners’ honour is as important today as it was 71 years ago when the Geneva Conventions came into force. But the world has changed, and it can be tempting to assume that the concept of honour has become outdated, or is necessarily sexist, or only has meaning for a particular cultural group. It hasn’t, it isn’t and it doesn’t.

Unpacking the term ‘honour’ provides us with a simple example of the type of work that goes into developing the updated ICRC Commentaries on the Geneva Conventions. The work of the updated Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention is to help readers unpack the meaning of each of its 142 Articles, drawing upon the expertise of military, legal, and academic experts, as well as courts and governments from around the world. We hope and trust they will provide a useful practical tool enabling the Third Geneva Convention to be known and to be understood, and ultimately to be applied.

[1] Interestingly, the drop in usage is less marked with the US English spelling (honor), in contrast with UK English spelling (honour).

[2] For example, Article 25 refers to the conditions of quarters to “make allowance for the habits and customs of the prisoners” and Article 26 requires that “[a]ccount shall also be taken of the habitual diet of the prisoners”.

[3] Julian Pitt-Rivers, ‘Honour and Social Status’ in J. G. Peristiany (ed.), Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society (1966) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 21.

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