Prisoner of War or Unlawful Combatant : An Evolution of International Humanitarian Law

University essay from Linköpings universitet/Ekonomiska institutionen


The construction of International Humanitarian Law and the norms regarding protection of prisoners of war have evolved as a reaction to the horrors of war. After September 11 and the following war on terrorism the notion of POWs has been widely debated. The USA holds prisoners at the navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba without granting them status as POWs; this thesis is placing the treatment of these detainees within a historical context. The norm concerning rights of POWs is today both internationalized and institutionalized, but that has not always been the case. This thesis illuminates how the norms have evolved during World War I, World War II and Vietnam War; finally the war against terrorism and the treatment of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay is analyzed. The intention of the thesis is to use a historical overview of the evolution of IHL, and the rights of POWs in particular, to formulate a wider assumption about the implication of IHL in the war against terrorism and the future.

The thesis adopts a theory which combines constructivism and John Rawls´ theory of justice and uses constructivist ideas about the nature of the international system applied to Rawls´ notion of justice. The constructivist theory and ontology are the basis of the theoretical framework of this thesis and Rawls´ definition of justice as the base of social institutions are viewed from a constructivist perspective. IHL and the norms regarding protection of POWs are thus considered as social facts, constructed and upheld through social interaction between states.

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