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Scenario

A military unit is about to be overrun by the enemy; to preserve the lives of his men, the commander elects to surrender. The entire force surrenders to the enemy, so there was no fighting going on after the surrender. However, during the process of the surrender - disarming the defeated, gathering them together, etc - a relief force arrives and engages the enemy.

Question

Can the surrendered troops now lawfully resume fighting? What about those who have been disarmed; are they still considered surrendered and non-combatant?

Related, at what point can an escaped/rescued POW lawfully resume fighting against his erstwhile captors?

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Under the Geneva Convention a prisoner-of-war may lawfully resume fighting once they have successfully escaped. Under Article 91:

The escape of a prisoner of war shall be deemed to have succeeded when:

  1. He has joined the armed forces of the Power on which he depends, or those of an allied Power;

  2. He has left the territory under the control of the Detaining Power, or of an ally of the said Power;

  3. He has joined a ship flying the flag of the Power on which he depends, or of an allied Power, in the territorial waters of the Detaining Power, the said ship not being under the control of the last named Power.

In the course of effecting an escape Article 93 provides:

offences committed by prisoners of war with the sole intention of facilitating their escape and which do not entail any violence against life or limb, such as offences against public property, theft without intention of self-enrichment, the drawing up or use of false papers, the wearing of civilian clothing, shall occasion disciplinary punishment only.

In the scenario you describe, armed prisoners-of-war may attempt to escape and join the relieving forces. Once they do so they may lawfully use their weapons against their former captors. Clearly they have joined the relievers if and when they make physical contact with them but it could also be argued that they may have escaped when they became operationally joined to those forces.

  • Nice answer, thanks! So one could argue that as soon as the relieving forces engage the enemy, the surrendering forces are free to resume fighting? – Werrf Dec 7 '16 at 0:57
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    @Werrf yes, and if the relieving forces are defeated and the prisoners are recaptured the capturer would argue that they had not "joined" and have them all shot. – Dale M Dec 7 '16 at 1:06

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