Attitudes toward prisoners of war have changed over time. Originally slaughtered, captives were later considered war booty. The captor still held life-and-death power, but it became more useful to make slaves of the prisoners. In feudal Europe the nobles were ransomed, and the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary States generally ransomed their Christian captives.
The basis of the modern treatment of prisoners of war was stated by Montesquieu in De l'esprit des lois and by J. J. Rousseau in his Social Contract; both held that the right of the captor over the prisoner was limited to preventing him from taking up arms again and ceased altogether with the end of hostilities. Their view was elaborated by Emerich de Vattel. During the American Civil War, Francis Lieber drew up the first systematic, written regulations on the treatment of prisoners of war.
The first international convention on prisoners of war was signed at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899. It was widened by the Hague Convention of 1907. These rules proved insufficient in World War I, and the International Red Cross proposed a more complete code.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.