Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 October 2009
During the twentieth century, a system for the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) was legalized. This system improved the treatment of POWs in some cases, but in others it failed to induce states to abandon the abuse and murder of soldiers who had surrendered to them. My primary aim is to explain the form of the legal rules and the system they have induced to handle POWs. My secondary aim is to explain why the system succeeds in some cases but not in others.
International institutions vary widely in their forms. Among international institutions, international law has relatively less institutional structure. Compared with other international institutions surveyed in this volume, the laws of war do not require recurrent decisions to be made on proper policies as the International Air Transport Association did, nor do they judge the facts in individual cases as dispute-resolution panels do. Instead, POW treaties and other laws of war set standards and prescribe mechanisms for ratifying states to use when they are at war with one another. Enforcing the standards is left to the parties themselves. In the context of the Rational Design project my analysis provides an example of how normative values legalized into a treaty shape state behavior. It also addresses the central question of the project: why do these treaties take the form they do?
Informal understandings on the treatment of POWs are as old as war.