Is sharing photographs of prisoners of war banned by the Geneva Convention?

16 March 2022
What was claimed

Publishing or sharing identifiable pictures of prisoners of war is a breach of the Geneva Convention.

Our verdict

The relevant Geneva Convention does not explicitly ban the publication of photographs of prisoners of war. Nor does it apply to people who are not involved in the conflict. But the government and British Red Cross say that such pictures should not usually be published.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, we’ve seen many images of Russian prisoners of war being shared on social media, and published by the media, including the Daily Mail, the Express, the Mirror, the Telegraph and the Times.

We’ve also seen claims that the Geneva Convention forbids this. For instance, on 26 February, the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, who is chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) “will explain that the Geneva Protocols forbid the use of the images of POWs”.

On 2 March, the Global Editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, James Ball, wrote on Twitter: “It is often being done on here with absolutely no malicious intent, but: publishing and sharing identifiable pictures of prisoners of war is literally in breach of the Geneva Conventions.”

In a thread on Twitter about the Geneva Convention on 4 March, the ICRC has also said that prisoners or war “must be treated with dignity, and not exposed to public curiosity – like circulating images on social media”.

The ICRC is a neutral humanitarian organisation with a mandate to help the victims of armed conflict, established following the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

As far as we can tell, it isn’t always true that sharing identifiable pictures of prisoners of war would breach the Geneva Convention. But in practice the Government and British Red Cross suggest such images should not normally be shared, and many journalists and social media users may choose not to do so. This is why we have not included links to photographs of prisoners of war in this article.

Full Fact asked the Daily Mail, the Express, the Mirror, the Telegraph and the Times about their policy on using photographs of prisoners of war, but at the time of writing, none of them had replied. When Full Fact contacted Mr Ball, he agreed with our assessment that taking and sharing photographs doesn’t necessarily breach the Geneva Convention. 

What does the Geneva Convention say?

The four Geneva Conventions set out how soldiers and civilians should be treated in war. The Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which explains how prisoners of war should be treated, does not explicitly mention photography or film. However it does say, in Article 13, that “prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity”. These are the words generally considered relevant to photographs.

In its commentary on Article 13, the International Committee of the Red Cross says that it covers “the disclosure of photographic and video images, recordings of interrogations or private conversations or personal correspondence or any other private data, irrespective of which public communication channel is used, including the internet [because] such disclosure could still be humiliating and jeopardize the safety of the prisoners’ families and of the prisoners themselves once they are released”.

The publication or sharing of images of prisoners of war might not always have this effect, however. For instance, the ICRC commentary also says that “photographic and other visual evidence has been used to prosecute war crimes, promote accountability and raise public awareness of abuses, contributing to greater respect for the Geneva Conventions”.

It therefore recommends that images that identify prisoners of war, or show them in humiliating or degrading situations, are not published unless there is a “compelling public interest” in doing so. This might include when a prisoner is very senior, is wanted by justice, or has gone missing, or in order to bring abuse to public attention. It also says that the same rules apply to deceased prisoners of war.

Who is bound by the law?

The Geneva Convention only applies to those involved in the conflict. However, for journalists or members of the public elsewhere who wish to follow the Convention’s principles, it may be simplest to avoid sharing any identifiable photographs or recordings of prisoners of war.

Obscuring prisoners’ identities may also be a good alternative. “In general,” the ICRC commentary says, “the media should always resort to appropriate methods, such as blurring, pixelating or otherwise obscuring faces and name tags, altering voices or filming from a certain distance, in order to serve their function without disclosing the prisoners’ identities”.

Other legal experts have expressed similar opinions. Steven Haines, a professor of international public law at the University of Greenwich and a director of the International Society for Military Law and the Law of War, told Full Fact: “The way I would put it at the moment is there’s no ban on taking photographs, but photographs must be taken for the right reasons [...] An awful lot would depend on what a court determined as being appropriate or inappropriate.”

When asked about whether people at home in the UK should share photographs of prisoners of war, Professor Haines said: “They are not subject to international humanitarian law in those circumstances, because they’re not in a war zone […] I would not do that, probably because of my background, but I don’t think it would be reasonable for a court to convict somebody sitting on a sofa in Chipping Norton […] I think that would be an unreasonable prosecution.”

Major General Charles Dunlap Jr, a professor of law at Duke University in the US, also wrote a blog about the Convention on 27 February this year, in which he said it “does not prohibit, per se, the release of photos or videos of prisoners of war […] Sometimes releasing photos or video may constitute ‘insults and public curiosity’ from which the prisoner is to be protected. That is not, however, always the case. One way to discern if the prohibition applies in a particular instance is to evaluate the ‘intent’ behind a given video or photo release.”

What to do in practice

In reality, it may not be practical to assess the intent behind a photograph before deciding whether to share it. If you’re unsure, the best approach may be simply not to publish or share any identifiable pictures of prisoners of war. In a statement in 2007, the government and the British Red Cross said that they “recognise that it is not possible to have absolute, hard and fast rules”, but suggested two guiding principles:

  • “Any image of Prisoners of War (POWs) as identifiable individuals should normally be regarded as subjecting such individuals to public curiosity and should not be transmitted, published or broadcast. Where the specific circumstances of a case make it necessary in the public interest to reveal the identity of a POW (eg, because of the person’s seniority, or because the person is a fugitive from international justice) great care should be taken to protect the person’s human dignity.
  • “Images of POWs individually or in groups in circumstances which undermine their public dignity, should not normally be transmitted, published or broadcast. In the exceptional circumstances where such images are transmitted, for example, to bring to public attention serious violations of international humanitarian law, individual identities must be protected.”

The National Union of Journalists advises that “journalists should ensure that individual prisoners are not identifiable in pictures or videos and that if necessary, faces, badges or other identifying symbols should be pixelated to protect the identity of individuals”.

Photo by Ye Jinghan on Unsplash

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