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Protected Persons

"Protected persons" is a legal term that only applies in situations of international armed conflict (IAC). It refers to specific protections afforded to people who have fallen into the hands of or are under the control of the adversary.

Protected persons

The specific category of protected persons is one that one applies in situations of international armed conflict, and applies to situations when the person is under the authority of the warring state. Each category of protected persons has a set criteria that establishes those who do and those who not not qualify for protection. 

There are four categories of protected person outlined by the Geneva Conventions:

Prisoners of War;

Protected civilians in their own, enemy, or occupied territory;

Wounded and sick on land;

Wounded and sick at sea.

Prisoners of war

Prisoners of war are members of armed forces or groups that, when in the hands of the enemy, are given special protected status.

All members of armed forces are entitled to POW status.

For example, if there was an armed conflict between Sweden and Norway, all Swedish soldiers in the hands of the Norwegian Army would be POWs, and vice versa.

Organised Armed groups belonging to a party to the conflict may also be entitled to POW status, but they must meet four collective conditions:

  1. Commanded by a person who is responsible for his subordinates.
  2. Having a fixed distinctive sign recognisable at a distance.
  3. Carrying arms openly.
  4. Conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

In case of doubt as to whether a person falls under one of the above mentioned categories, s/he should be presumed to be a POW, until a competent court has decided otherwise. Persons who accompany the armed forces without being members thereof will be afforded POW status (Art. 4(4) and (5) GCIII), but are not classified as combatants who can be directly targeted.

Protections for prisoners of war

The protections afforded to POWs is set out in the Third Geneva Convention. Some of the main protections and regulations include:

POWs must be treated humanely and must be subject to honorable treatment (Arts 13 and 14 GCIII);

There can be no discrimination based on race, nationality, religious beliefs, political opinions and the like (Art 16 GCIII);

They cannot be punished for mere participation in hostilities;

They may be punished for committing war crimes;

Reprisals against POWs are prohibited;

There is detailed regulation concerning life in a POW camp;

POW are subject to the laws of the detaining power;

Once the hostilities are ceased, POWs shall be released and repatriated without delay.

Prisoners of war - still a relevant category in modern conflict?

As the status of POW can only be afforded to IAC, the prevalence of NIAC means that the applicability of these protections is diminished. However, should an IAC break out and soldiers fall into the hands of the enemy, POW status and the protections afforded must be respected. 

While IHL provides basic protections for detainees in situations of non-international armed conflict, international human rights law outlines much more detailed guarantees for prisoners. These widely accepted rules are set out in the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, 1955. 

Protected civilians

All civilians are afforded some level of protection in armed conflict. However, in IAC there is an elevated level of protection for ‘protected civilians’.

Who is a protected civilian?

Everyone who is not a combatant is a protected civilian, except:

  • Civilians who are under the control of their own national authority;
  • Nationals of  a co-belligerent;
  • Neutrals are generally not protected persons, unless:
    • They are in occupied territory;
    • Their state does not have normal diplomatic relations with the detaining party;
    • Stateless person are always protected civilians.


Hypothetical Situation:

IAC between UK and France. UK is occupying northern France.


Detaining/Controlling authority

Protected Civilian?

Steve (British)



Steve (British)



Pierre (French)



Pierre (French)



Roger (Swiss)



Roger (Swiss)

British (London)


Roger (Swiss)

British (Occupied Paris)


Majd (Palestinian)



 Protections for protected civilians

The protections afforded to protected civilians are set out in the Fourth Geneva Convention. There is a further distinction between the protections granted when civilians are in the territory of a warring party, and when they are in occupied territory.

When in the territory of a warring party (own territory) or occupied territory, some of the key protections are:

Respect for their persons, their honor, their family rights, religious convictions and practices and customs;

Shall be humanely treated;

Protected against all acts of violence, including torture, rape and enforced prostitution;

Prohibition on the application of coercion to obtain information;

Prohibition on collective punishment.

When in the territory of the enemy:

Have a right to leave the territory (unless against national interests of the state);

May be subject to assigned residence;

Shall not be transferred to a power which is not a party to the Geneva Convention.

Protections solely granted to those protected civilians in occupied territory include:

May not be deprived, in any case or any manner whatsoever, the benefits of the Conventions. This could, for example, refer to an agreement made by the Occupying Power and the authorities of the occupied territory;

Strict prohibition on individual or mass forcible transfer of the protected population;

Strict prohibition on the transfer of the population of the Occupying Power into the occupied territory;

Destruction of private property is prohibited except were destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations;

The Occupying Power must ensure basic needs of the protected population are met;

The Occupying Power must ensure working of medical, hospital and education facilities;

The Occupying Power must facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid by third actors;

The Occupying Power must respect local laws unless changes are needed to ensure their own security, or for the benefit of the local protected population;

Read more about the law of occupation. 

Who is not a protected civilian?

The Fourth Geneva Convention also sets out the following protections for all civilians:

Fundamental protection under Common Article 3;

Creation of safety and hospital zones for all;

Wounded and sick shall be treated with respect and receive protection;

Hospital staff should be respected and protected;

Vehicles for the wounded and sick shall be respected and protected;

Each warring party should allow the free passage and delivery of humanitarian aid;

Children and orphans should be protected.