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Should War Criminals be Treated as POWs?
February 24, 2015
by William P. Meyers

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It may seem a bit theoretical to look at the ethics of specific war crime laws when the laws are almost never enforced. The worst war criminals are almost always to powerful to be prosecuted. Only the losers of wars are tried for war crimes.

Still hopefully some day that will change, for instance by the U.S.A. and other renegades joining the International Criminal Court. Most people don't have much of an understanding of war crimes. Thinking about what changes are desirable in the war crimes codes could help enlighten people.

One of the most common, and basic, war crimes is the mistreatment of prisoners of war (POWs). When soldiers surrender they are supposed to be treated honorably while detained until the end of the war. The problems with this are understandable. One moment a soldier is shooting at you, perhaps kills a friend of yours, and the next moment if the soldier surrenders you are supposed to remove him from the danger of the front lines to shelter and feed him until the end of the war.

So soldiers execute captured soldiers. The U.S. and Japan both did it in the Japanese-American war; U.S. soldiers did it in Vietnam; it probably has happened to various extent in every war. The goal would be to minimize the practice, which would be hard to eliminate. This requires training individual troops in the rules of war and an internal monitoring system in each nation's military.

One question that always comes up is whether this war crime is sporadic. Is it an action of individual soldiers, or is it ordered or permitted by the command chain? Is it done in the heat of battle, or in the calm of a prison camp?

After World War II both Germans and Japanese were convicted of war crimes. In the case of Germany, 10 of those convicted were executed. In the case of Japan, 920 were executed (indicating a racist bias, given the facts about relative German and Japanese war aggression and war conduct).

I believe the rule for the humane treatment of prisoners should be extended to war criminals. This is despite the fact that I think if anything deserves the death penalty, it is war crimes, particularly the decision to launch a war.

If no one surrenders, wars go on forever. Encouraging troops or entire nations to surrender serves the cause of peace. If leaders think they will be convicted of war crimes if they surrender, then they will fight on. This happened in both the German and the Japanese cases in World War II, following U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisting on unconditional surrender.

This does not mean war criminals would be let off the hook. If convicted hey would get the maximum sentence allowed by law in civilized nations, life without parole.

I admit that a life sentence is pretty paltry compared to the magnitude of major war crimes. The point is not to demonstrate mercy. The point is to end wars quickly, and to prevent future wars.

The deal should be: if you surrender, you live. As long as you are fighting, and are an aggressor, you are a fair target.

Agree? Disagree? You can comment on this post at Natural Liberation Blog at blogspot.com

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