In 1929 the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was signed by 47 governments. Chief among the nations that did not adhere to the Geneva Convention of 1929 were Japan and the USSR. Japan, however, gave a qualified promise (1942) to abide by the Geneva rules, and the USSR announced (1941) that it would observe the terms of the Hague Convention of 1907, which did not provide (as does the Geneva Convention) for neutral inspection of prison camps, for the exchange of prisoners' names, and for correspondence with prisoners.
According to the Geneva Convention no prisoner of war could be forced to disclose to his captor any information other than his identity (i.e., his name and rank, but not his military unit, home town, or address of relatives). Every prisoner of war was entitled to adequate food and medical care and had the right to exchange correspondence and receive parcels. He was required to observe ordinary military discipline and courtesy, but he could attempt to escape at his own risk. Once recaptured, he was not to be punished for his attempt. Officers were to receive pay either according to the pay scale of their own country or to that of their captor, whichever was less; they could not be required to work. Enlisted men might be required to work for pay, but the nature and location of their work were not to expose them to danger, and in no case could they be required to perform work directly related to military operations. Camps were to be open to inspection by authorized representatives of a neutral power.
In World War II, Switzerland and Sweden acted as protecting powers. The International Red Cross at Geneva acted as a clearinghouse for the exchange of all information regarding prisoners of war and had charge of transmitting correspondence and parcels. With minor and inevitable exceptions on the lower levels, the United States and Great Britain generally honored the Geneva Convention throughout the conflict. Japan at first committed such atrocities as the "death march of Bataan," but began to abide by the rules after a sufficient number of Japanese prisoners had fallen into Allied hands to make reprisals possible. Germany did not treat all its prisoners alike. Americans and British subjects received the best treatment, Polish prisoners the worst.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.