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The Institutional Features of the Prisoners of War Treaties

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 July 2003

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During the twentieth century states negotiated and ratified formal treaties on the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs). These treaties have created a system for the treatment of POWs with universal and detailed standards and decentralized enforcement. I explain the form of the POW system as a rational institutional response to four strategic problems the issue of POWs poses: monitoring under noise, individual as opposed to state violations, variation in preferred treatment of POWs, and raising a mass army. In response to these four problems, neutral parties help address the problem of monitoring the standards. The ratification process screens out some states that do not intend to live up to the standards. The two-level problem of state and individual violations is addressed by making states responsible for punishing the actions of their own soldiers. By protecting POWs, the treaties help states raise armies during wartime. The POW case supports many, but not all, of the Rational Design conjectures. In particular, it suggests other strategic logics to explain variation in the membership and centralization of international institutions.

The Rational Design of International Institutions
Copyright © The IO Foundation 2001

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I thank the editors of this special issue of IO, the other participants in the Rational Design project, and the editors of IO for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. Comments by seminar participants at the Hoover Institution and University of California at Davis also improved the article.

1. See Schotter 1981; and Calvert 1995.

2. Shepsle 1983.

3. Morrow 1997.

4. Green and Porter 1984.

5. Milgrom, North, and Weingast 1990.

6. Vance 1994, 185–88.

7. Bailey 1981, 53.

8. See Downs and Rocke 1990 and 1995.

9. Barker 1975, 27–35.

10. Holmes 1985, 381–87.

11. Linderman 1997, 107–14.

12. See Bartov 1985, 118; and Holmes 1985, 324.

13. See Dower 1986, 52–53, 61–71; and Linderman 1997, 143–84.

14. Fearon and Laitin 1996.

15. Ashworth 1980.

16. Fearon and Laitin 1996.

17. See Krasner 1991; Morrow 1994c; and Fearon 1998.

18. Fritz 1995, 57.

19. Overy 1997, 128.

20. Barker 1975, 97–112.

21. Japanese training manuals contained the warning, “Those becoming prisoners of war will suffer the death penalty”; see Barker 1975, 122.

22. Morrow 1999.

23. See Farrell 1987; and Morrow 1994c.

24. None of this discussion should be read as implying that signaling or screening is perfect. My contention is not that preferences are completely revealed by signals or screens, but merely that actors can refine their knowledge of others' preferences after observing a signal. Nor am I suggesting that all actors then act as the type they have signaled.

25. Fearon 1994.

26. Bueno de Mesquita et al. 1999.

27. Levi 1997.

28. For text of the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the treatment of POWs, see Reisman and Antoniou 1994.

29. Krammer 1979, 169–73.

30. Garrett 1981, 159–60.

31. Best 1994, 361–62.

32. See Garrett 1981, 204–18; and Best 1994, 352–55. For lists of ratifying states and the date and status of their ratification as of their date of publication, see Reisman and Antoniou 1994.

33. For further detail on treatment of POWs during World War II, see Mackenzie 1994.

34. For the eastern front, see Bartov 1991, 84–89. For the war in the Pacific, see Dower 1986, 62–71.

35. Holmes 1985, 381–87.

36. Barker 1975, 21.

37. Overy 1997, 80–81, 300–304.

38. Linderman 1997, 150–51.

39. Would Stalin have allowed an agency over which he had little control to prosecute and punish Nazi war criminals after World War II?

40. Dennett 1919.

41. Hata 1996.

42. ICRC 1948, 2:116–57Google ScholarPubMed, and 3:9–48, 251–55.

43. For example, Mearshemer 1994/1995.