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Assume the following situation:

  • You live under an authoritarian regime.
  • Your country is at war with another country, which has a far more favorable human rights record.
  • Your attitude of your regime is critical, and you see the war as unjustified.
  • Nonetheless, you were drafted (or became a career soldier, maybe during better times) and are now required to fight in this war.
  • The other side captures you, making you a prisoner of war. You are glad it turned out this way, believing this is the end of the war for you.
  • Now both sides are arranging a prisoner exchange, and you are informed that you are among those who will be repatriated. However, you would rather remain a prisoner until the end of the war than be returned to your country. Not only do you no longer wish to live under that regime and support it, you may also face punishment in your country, e.g. for surrendering to the enemy.

What international law would apply to such a situation? Would it allow the repatriation of a POW against their will? Are there any further circumstances that would make a difference here?

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    I think you are confusing being a POWs with being on all inclusive vacation. Also can't tell, oh Russia sucks, also I do not like to be in Ukraine, if I will be returned, I only agree to be returned to France and not on those stinky busses, only on plane, first class ticket. Probably you do not realized but it is very costly to have POWs. You need to feed them, provide clothes, living conditions, spend your resources to make sure they will not escape. You do all this for free to people who came to kill your family, but were not successful. POW is a liability. Sep 26, 2022 at 6:34
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    The country might agree to your requests (and Ukraine has done this to a few people who surrender at the beginning of the war, when soldiers really didn't know what was happening), but this is a gesture of good will, not a requirement. Sep 26, 2022 at 6:38
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    Historical precedent: Operation Keelhaul. Sep 26, 2022 at 7:02
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    I'd be surprised if the POWs were even ASKED for their opinion. They'll just be loaded on a truck or bus one day and driven to the exchange point.
    – Tom
    Sep 26, 2022 at 8:49
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    @SalvadorDali President Zelenskiy made a speech a couple of days ago in which he at least half-promised not to include Russian POWs in exchanges against their will. Sep 26, 2022 at 10:02

3 Answers 3

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One option would be for the PoW to claim asylum as a refugee in the "capturing" country or, for example, via an international human rights organisation:

Refugees are defined and protected in international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention is a key legal document and defines a refugee as:

"someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Source: UNHCR

That said, things like political objectives, diplomatic negotiations, military strategies, and the prisoner's "value" (on both sides) may influence decisions around which prisoners are exchanged and when.

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    One of the reasons why it is unlikely that the state of Isreal will be invaded by any of its neighbours that they have an open policy of giving asylum to soldiers of neighbouring countries that are willing to lay down arms.
    – Neil Meyer
    Sep 25, 2022 at 11:01
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    I think if a soldier applies for asylum then he becomes a defector not a pow.
    – Neil Meyer
    Sep 25, 2022 at 11:03
  • Sure, asylum may be an option, but may come with substantial difficulties. Is there anything in international law that would apply specifically to repatriation of PoWs?
    – user149408
    Sep 25, 2022 at 12:21
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    Related: Duty to escape. Sep 25, 2022 at 18:14
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    @NeilMeyer Ukraine has the same policy, or at least some ads targeted at Russian soldiers said so.
    – fraxinus
    Sep 26, 2022 at 9:08
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This question is investigated here. If we take the refugee question off the table for a moment, we need only consider the Third Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War which is the international law that governs prisoners of war. No provision of that treaty requires a detaining power to, in any fashion, consult with a prisoner regarding selection for a prisoner exchange. Therefore, "I'd rather stay here" has no legal force.

Article 7 may be an important procedural requirement for a POW: "Prisoners of war may in no circumstances renounce in part or in entirety the rights secured to them by the present Convention, and by the special agreements referred to in the foregoing Article, if such there be". The rationale behind this is the presumption that the prisoner may well have been coerced into some renunciation, so Art 7 makes such coercion ineffective. Art. 21 says that a POW can be interned (etc.) but also

Prisoners of war may be partially or wholly released on parole or promise, in so far as is allowed by the laws of the Power on which they depend. Such measures shall be taken particularly in cases where this may contribute to the improvement of their state of health. No prisoner of war shall be compelled to accept liberty on parole or promise.

(This does not refer to repatriation, it refers to "letting them roam about").

The one exception of note regarding the principle that prisoners get no say is Art. 109 which states that

No sick or injured prisoner of war who is eligible for repatriation under the first paragraph of this Article, may be repatriated against his will during hostilities

where the first-paragraph condition is being a seriously wounded or seriously sick prisoners of war who is has been treated to be fit for travel.

The convention states an unconditional requirement to repatriate prisoners at the end of hostilities, so we must assume that since this is a prisoner exchange that hostilities persist. As the analysis article states,

Those benefiting from the protective status of prisoners of war are, in principle, not entitled to the international protection granted to refugees. However, prisoners of war who refuse to be repatriated at the end of the hostilities can apply for asylum in the detaining State....

The 1951 Refugee Convention is not applicable to ex-combatants during their period of internment

Thus a line can be draws between prisoner exchanges and repatriation at the cessation of hostilities. However,

From a refugee law perspective, a former combatant in a neutral State who has been disarmed and interned can be a refugee

In summary, in the case of a POW held by an enemy state (not a neutral state), one who is not seriously injured, and while hostilities exist, there is no clear path to refuse repatriation. The refugee door is open at the cessation of hostilities, where one asks if a person is "includable" (might be persecuted) and is not "excludable" (war criminals are excluded). Being an enemy combatant is a legitimate ground for exclusion (there is a long exegesis of the 1951 Refugee Convention here, see Art. 9).

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    "No sick or injured prisoner of war who is eligible for repatriation under the first paragraph of this Article, may be repatriated against his will during hostilities" seems good but isn't it a Catch-22? Sep 25, 2022 at 18:16
  • While there is no right for prisoners to refuse repatriation, it does seem to me that the hosting power may give them that option, since once they are refugees, they are not interred PoWs anymore and therefore don't HAVE to be repatriated
    – Hobbamok
    Sep 26, 2022 at 9:15
  • @WeatherVane it's not: you can not shove the injured PoWs back to the enemy you captured them from but retain the fighting capable ones. Only if those injured want to go home, you may send them back during the hostilities.
    – Trish
    Sep 26, 2022 at 9:17
  • @Trish I understood that, thank you. Sep 26, 2022 at 9:53
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    Would there be any historical precedent for situations where one side in a war splits into two or more factions which go to war with each other, and a prisoner may no longer want to fight on their original side? At the start of World War II, someone whose primary allegiance with Russia may have willingly joined the German army, fought against England and France, and gotten captured while doing so, all while Germany and Russia were allies. Such a person, however, would not want to go back to fighting for Germany if released after Germany invaded Russia.
    – supercat
    Sep 26, 2022 at 16:33
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I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess this question is motivated by Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine is encouraging Russians to surrender. Russia is threatening prison time to those who surrender.

Bottom Line: If you are Russian and want to avoid being sent to Ukraine, your best bet is to seek asylum before reporting for duty.

There are reasons to think involuntary repatriation of POWs may not happen, but once you are a POW you are holding yourself hostage to the outcomes of the war and the politicians who are negotiating the wars conclusions. POWs are always a part of those negotiations, and if Russia wants to demand involuntary repatriation as a condition of the end of hostilities they will. Furthermore, once in the military you are subject to military law, which can be dangerous. International law does not cover how military.s treat their own soldiers and there is no guarantee that your superior will not just shoot you for trying to surrender.

If you seek asylum in a third country before reporting, you are still hostage to politicians and laws, but different politicians and different laws. Those countries will have their processes, and politics can still play a part, but it would be difficult for Russia to tie peace in Ukraine to the forcible repatriation of asylum seekers from (say) Finland. In most cases, asylum seekers have more protections, and I suspect that some countries would be happy to stick a thumb in Russia's eye. Getting to the third country is the challenge, but it will not be easier or safer if you are in a Russian military uniform.

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    This is more of a political answer; do you have legal citations? Sep 27, 2022 at 17:52
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    The third citation is from a law journal. Also, the question is political. You will note, if you follow the third citation, that the main case when this became a question was repatriating Chinese POWs during and after the Korean War. At the time, and to this day, the law is not helpful. The US did not at the time, not for any legal reason, but because it would have been too unpopular at home, and it was politically useful to repatriate those people to Taiwan. The same issue holds true now, and that is the answer. Sep 27, 2022 at 19:29

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