Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 2020 
Article 50 : Authorized work
Text of the provision
(1) Besides work connected with camp administration, installation or maintenance, prisoners of war may be compelled to do only such work as is included in the following classes:
a) agriculture;
b) industries connected with the production or the extraction of raw materials, and manufacturing industries, with the exception of metallurgical, machinery and chemical industries; public works and building operations which have no military character or purpose;
c) transport and handling of stores which are not military in character or purpose;
d) commercial business, and arts and crafts;
e) domestic service;
f) public utility services having no military character or purpose.
(2) Should the above provisions be infringed, prisoners of war shall be allowed to exercise their right of complaint, in conformity with Article 78.
* Paragraph numbers have been added for ease of reference.
Reservations or declarations
None
Contents

A. Introduction
2694  The Detaining Power may compel all prisoners of war enlisted below the grade of non-commissioned officer to work. However, it is restricted in the choice of labour it may demand of them. Article 50 provides an exhaustive list of the categories of labour in which prisoners of war may be employed.
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B. Historical background
2695  Article 31 of the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War provided that ‘[w]ork done by prisoners of war shall have no direct connection with the operations of the war’.[1] This formulation created difficulties for Detaining Powers as they had to determine what a ‘direct connection’ meant as opposed to an ‘indirect connection’. During the Second World War, belligerents found it difficult to agree on the scope of this provision, as most work could be considered as a contribution to the national war effort.[2]
2696  The Conference of Government Experts, convened in 1947, attempted to improve on the 1929 wording. It had two distinct choices: to include a more explicit list of prohibited work or to provide an exhaustive list of occupations that may be performed by prisoners of war.[3] The government experts opted for the latter. Moreover, they felt it necessary to explicitly exclude those fields of employment that prisoners might perceive as making a direct contribution to the war against their fellow citizens.[4]
2697  At the Diplomatic Conference in 1949, draft article 31 gave rise to intense and lengthy debate. According to the UK delegate, it ‘had been the most disputed article in the whole Convention, and the most difficult of interpretation’.[5] Nonetheless, most delegations agreed that ‘no prisoner should be put in the position of fighting against his own country or of taking part in any work which is directly part and parcel of that fighting’.[6] In the end, delegations preferred to enumerate the categories of labour in which the Detaining Power could employ prisoners of war, implicitly prohibiting their use in any other type of work not listed.
2698  The most contentious issue was whether prisoners of war could be used for the removal of mines. There were two opposing views: some delegations wanted to list demining among the activities authorized under Article 50, while others argued that demining was a specialized and very dangerous job for which very few prisoners would have had prior training.[7] The question was ultimately settled by the plenary meeting, with 23 delegations voting against the inclusion of demining activities in Article 50, 19 voting to include them and 4 delegations abstaining.[8]
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C. Work authorized without restrictions
1. Work in camps
2699  The first unrestricted category of permissible work listed in Article 50(1) is that connected to the running of prisoner-of-war camps, i.e. in the administration, installation or maintenance of the camps. It can be assumed that a great number of prisoners would be employed in such tasks. This type of work is mainly carried out in the prisoners’ own interests, rather than being of economic benefit to the Detaining Power. It also contributes to good living conditions and order in the camp.
2700  In the ICRC’s experience of a number of international armed conflicts since 1949, prisoners have been assigned a wide variety of tasks related to the running of camps. These have included helping in the kitchen, making cement bricks, acting as translators, gardening, working in sick bays, construction works and participating in the overall maintenance of living quarters. The Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission found that building ‘residence houses and other facilities for the camp and the guards is not work of military character, but concerns the installation of the camp, and is allowed under Article 50’.[9]
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2. Other work authorized without restrictions
2701  Agriculture is the next category of work authorized under Article 50. It could be argued that participating in agricultural activities can have some direct military value, as the food produced, for example, may be used for both civilians and military personnel.[10] However, the Convention places no restrictions on the employment of prisoners of war in agriculture.
2702  Prisoners of war may also be employed in ‘commercial business, and arts and crafts’.[11] While it is common for prisoners to engage in arts and crafts, such as painting and woodcarving, while in detention, it is more often in the form of a hobby than assigned labour.[12] Similarly, prisoners can undertake commercial activities within the camp.[13] Since 1949, the ICRC noted that Detaining Powers allowed prisoners of war to run bookshops, tailor or barber shops for example.
2703  Lastly, prisoners of war may be employed in domestic service, as such work is not considered to have a direct link to the operations of war.[14] The type of establishment where the work is carried out, whether military or civilian, is immaterial, but it must not be situated in areas exposed to the dangers of combat.[15] The ICTY considered that cleaning the premises of a military group’s headquarters and repairing private cars did not fall within the types of labour that prisoners are prohibited from doing.[16] Rather, these are clear examples of domestic services, as provided for in Article 50.
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D. Work authorized under certain conditions
2704  In determining what fields of employment should be authorized, the majority of delegations at the 1947 Conference of Government Experts agreed that prisoners of war ‘should be employed only on the various types of labour required for peace economy, while prohibiting all other work likely to furnish the DP [Detaining Power] with means of making war against the home country of PW [prisoners of war]’.[17]
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1. Manufacturing industries and industries connected with the production or the extraction of raw materials
2705  Prisoners of war may be compelled to work in manufacturing industries and industries connected with the production or extraction of raw materials, with the exception of metallurgical, machinery and chemical industries. The reason for the exceptions is that these industries are likely to contribute directly to the war effort, and their output, in particular armaments, could certainly be used against the prisoners’ compatriots. Furthermore, those types of industries could be targeted as military objectives by Parties to the conflict, provided they satisfy the definition of military objective.[18] The use of prisoners of war in these industries during the Second World War was seen as a blatant disregard for Article 31 of the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, which prohibited work done by prisoners of war that had a direct connection with the operations of war.[19]
2706  According to the wording of Article 50(1), prisoners of war may not work in the fields of metals mining or oil extraction, which could later be used, for example, in the metallurgical or chemical industries. Activities such as stone quarrying or wood logging are permitted.
2707  The ultimate destination of the manufactured goods is immaterial.[20] All motor vehicles, for example, would fall under the prohibited category of ‘machinery’ industries. However, prisoners of war could work in the food-processing industry or in clothing factories, even if the items produced could serve both civilian and military purposes.[21]
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2. Other authorized work, provided they have no military character or purpose
2708  Prisoners of war may be compelled to work in three more categories of work, provided these activities have no military character or purpose. They are listed in the second part of subparagraph b and in subparagraphs c and f. They group public works and building operations, the transport and handling of stores, and public utility services.
2709  The Detaining Power would have to determine whether an activity falling within these categories has a military character or purpose. The concept of ‘military character’ is understood to include activities which are commanded and regulated by military authorities, as opposed to by civilian authorities.[22] The criterion of ‘purpose’ concerns the intended use of an activity.[23] In armed conflict, any activity could have at least an incidental military purpose, depending on the circumstances. Prisoners of war may be employed on all work which, in the categories under consideration, normally serves to support civilian life, even if the military authorities incidentally benefit from it. The participation of prisoners of war in such work is prohibited, however, whenever it is done for the sole or principal benefit of the military.[24]
2710  For the category of public works or building operations, for example, it would not be permissible for prisoners of war to participate in road building if the purpose of such operations was clearly military. However, they may be employed in clearing the rubble of a bombed city, since this would primarily have a civilian purpose. Helping build a fortification would clearly have a military purpose and therefore be off-limits to prisoners of war. Building a theatre is certainly civilian in character, but if it is part of a military school and will be used primarily to show military training films, it would have a military purpose and therefore be prohibited to prisoners of war.[25] Prisoners of war may participate in the construction of a building or structure that has neither a military character nor purpose, such as the construction of a tennis court, even though it may be used incidentally by the military.[26] Activities such as bush clearance or the construction of fire breaks in wooded areas far away from the combat zone would also be authorized.[27] The Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission observed that rebuilding the facilities of a prisoner-of-war camp does not amount to work of a military character.[28] Similarly, it took the view that roads are considered works of public utility and therefore prisoners of war may work on them, unless it is clear that these roads have a military character or purpose.[29]
2711  Public utility services, such as water, gas, electricity and telecommunications, have a mainly civilian purpose. However, if the service is intended exclusively or primarily for military use, it would have a military purpose and work on it would be prohibited to prisoners of war.[30]
2712  As to ‘the transport and handling of stores which are not military in character or purpose’,[31] it would be prohibited for prisoners of war to work for a private enterprise loading trucks with supplies intended for the armed forces. However, it may not always be easy for the prisoners to determine the nature or ultimate purpose of these supplies.[32]
2713  Since the Second World War, prisoners of war have rarely been called upon to engage in any of the above activities. However, in the former Yugoslavia, prisoners were sometimes forced to perform military-support tasks in dangerous conditions, such as digging trenches near the front lines, carrying explosives across those lines, and building fortifications, including sealing exposed windows or protecting areas with sandbags. The ICTY found that these forms of compulsory labour were prohibited by the present provision.[33]
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E. Prohibited work, unless freely consented to by prisoners of war
2714  Article 50 enumerates the categories of labour which the Detaining Power is permitted to compel prisoners of war to do, implicitly prohibiting the use of the prisoners in any other type of work not specifically listed.[34] However, Article 50 does not deprive prisoners of war of the freedom to opt to do these other types of work.[35] They may therefore volunteer for such work, in the same way as under Article 52 they can volunteer for work which is of an unhealthy or dangerous nature.[36]
2715  The fact that prisoners can voluntarily renounce the protection granted by Article 50 should not be seen as a violation of Article 7, which provides that ‘[p]risoners of war may in no circumstances renounce in part or in entirety the rights secured to them by the present Convention’. In the case of Article 50, the Convention allows prisoners of war to consent to carrying out a type of labour which would otherwise be prohibited by that article. States that accommodate such choices by prisoners of war therefore do not violate Article 7.[37]
2716  Considering the vulnerable and highly constrained situation of prisoners of war in the hands of a Detaining Power, caution must be exercised when considering the authenticity of the prisoner’s consent. [38]
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F. Paragraph 2: Right of complaint
2717  If the Detaining Power uses prisoners of war in work which does not fall within the list of permissible activities, the prisoners thus used may exercise their right of complaint, in conformity with Article 78.[39] Although Article 78(2) establishes the right of prisoners of war to make complaints to the Detaining Power on any matter regarding their conditions of captivity, the drafters of the Convention felt it necessary, in particular in relation to prohibited fields of work, to recall this right in this section of the Convention.[40]
2718  Prisoners may lodge complaints with the camp authorities and present their case to them. At the same time, they may, in particular if the camp authorities reject their complaint, send a copy of the complaint to representatives of the Protecting Power or the ICRC.[41]
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Select bibliography
Beaumont, Joan, ‘Rank, Privilege and Prisoners of War’, War and Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1983, pp. 67–94.
Hingorani, Rup C., Prisoners of War, 2nd edition, Oceana Press, Dobbs Ferry, 1982.
Jones, Heather, ‘The Final Logic of Sacrifice? Violence in German Prisoner of War Labor Companies in 1918’, The Historian, Vol. 68, No. 4, Winter 2006, pp. 770–791.
Levie, Howard S., ‘The Employment of Prisoners of War’, American Journal of International Law, Vol. 57, No. 2, April 1963, pp. 318–353.
Lewis, David A.G., ‘The Structure of the Third Geneva Convention System of POW Labour Law and Collective Representation and the Challenges Presented by Modern Armed Conflicts’, Acta Societatis Martensis, Vol. 3, 2007/2008, pp. 60–79.
Maia, Catherine, Kolb, Robert and Scalia, Damien, La Protection des Prisonniers de Guerre en Droit International Humanitaire, Bruylant, Brussels, 2015.
Rosas, Allan, The Legal Status of Prisoners of War: A Study in International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts, Institute for Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University, Turku/Åbo, 1976, reprinted 2005.
Silvia Sanna, ‘Treatment of Prisoners of War’, in Andrew Clapham, Paola Gaeta and Marco Sassòli (eds), The 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 977–1012.

1 - This prohibition was also included in numerous agreements from the First World War regarding prisoners of war; see e.g. Agreement between France and Germany concerning Prisoners of War (1918), Article 11, and Agreement between Austria-Hungary and Italy concerning Prisoners of War and Civilians (1918), Article 25(3).
2 - Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC, 1960, pp. 264–265. See also ICRC, Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its Activities during the Second World War (September 1, 1939–June 30, 1947), Volume I: General Activities, ICRC, Geneva, May 1948, pp. 332–335, and Preliminary Documents submitted by the ICRC to the Conference of Government Experts of 1947, p. 87. For a more detailed historical background, see Levie, pp. 329–331, and Sibylle Scheipers (ed.), Prisoners in War, Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 25–26 and 81–86.
3 - See Report of the Conference of Government Experts of 1947, pp. 177–179; Draft Conventions submitted to the 1948 Stockholm Conference, pp. 82–84; and Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 272.
4 - See Draft Conventions submitted to the 1948 Stockholm Conference, p. 83.
5 - Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 442 (United Kingdom).
6 - Minutes of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Committee II, Vol. II, 23rd meeting, p. 48.
7 - Some delegations, such as Brazil, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom and the USSR supported the proposal to allow prisoners of war to undertake demining activities, whereas others, such as Australia, Belgium, Canada, Switzerland and the United States, were opposed. See Minutes of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Committee II, Vol. I, 10th meeting, pp. 2–18, and Vol. II, 23rd meeting, pp. 27–63, and Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, pp. 272–273, 342–345 and 441–444, and Vol. II-B, pp. 290–298.
8 - See Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-B, pp. 290–298.
9 - See Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission, Prisoners of War, Ethiopia’s Claim, Partial Award, 2003, para. 133.
10 - This would particularly be the case if the Detaining Power was placed under an economic blockade during the armed conflict; see Hingorani, p. 144.
11 - In the French version of Article 50, the phrase ‘commercial business, and arts and crafts’ is rendered as ‘activités commerciales ou artistiques’ (‘artistic or commercial activities’).
12 - See Levie, p. 338, and UN Security Council, Prisoners of war in Iran and Iraq: The report of a mission dispatched by the Secretary-General, January 1985, UN Doc. S/16962, 22 February 1985, p. 42, citing Iraqi prisoners of war in Iranian camps who were able to participate in workshops to acquire practical skills ranging from arts and crafts to small-scale manufacturing.
13 - Ibid. Levie doubts whether very many prisoners of war would be given the opportunity to engage in commercial activities outside the camp.
14 - See Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC, 1960, p. 267.
15 - Article 23 prohibits prisoners of war from being sent to or detained in areas where they may be exposed to the fire of the combat zone; see the commentary on Article 23, section C.1. See also Levie, p. 338.
16 - See ICTY, Naletilić and Martinović Trial Judgment, 2003, para. 269.
17 - Report of the Conference of Government Experts of 1947, p. 179.
18 - During the Second World War, these industries were among the key objectives of enemy air operations; see Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC, 1960, pp. 268–269.
19 - See e.g. United States, Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Krupp case, Judgment, 1948, where the accused was found guilty of forcing French prisoners of war to work in the arms industry.
20 - See Levie, p. 333.
21 - Ibid. pp. 333–334.
22 - Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC, 1960, p. 267.
23 - See Sandoz/Swinarski/Zimmermann (eds), Commentary on the Additional Protocols, ICRC, 1987, para. 2022.
24 - Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC, 1960, p. 268.
25 - See Levie, pp. 335–336.
26 - Ibid. p. 336.
27 - Ibid. p. 337.
28 - See Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission, Prisoners of War, Ethiopia’s Claim, Partial Award, 2003, para. 133.
29 - Ibid. On this point, see also the practice of French troops in Indochina, who employed prisoners to build fortifications and bridges to facilitate access by military trucks, in violation of the present provision; see Maia/Kolb/Scalia, p. 331. During the Second World War, prisoners of war were also employed by the Japanese Southern General Army Railway Unit in the construction of railways transporting military supplies and munitions to Japanese forces in Burma. See e.g. United Kingdom, Military Court at Singapore, Ishida and others case, Charge Sheet, 1947, p. 1, and Sugasawa case, Abstract of Evidence, 1947, p. 1.
30 - Levie, p. 339.
31 - Previously, Article 31 of the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War prohibited the use of prisoners for ‘the transport of arms or munitions of any kind, or on the transport of material destined for combatant units’.
32 - See Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC, 1960, p. 268, and Levie, pp. 337–338.
33 - See ICTY, Naletilić and Martinović Trial Judgment, 2003, paras 268–269; Prlić Trial Judgment, 2013, Vol. 3, paras 157–164, 1500–1522 and 1592–1612; Blaškić Appeal Judgment, 2004, para. 597; and Aleksovski Trial Judgment, 1999, paras 127–129. See also Fausto Pocar, ‘L’emploi des civils et des prisonniers de guerre à des fins militaires devant le TPIY’, in Marcelo Kohen, Robert Kolb and Djacoba Liva Tehindrazanarivelo (eds), Perspectives of International Law in the 21st Century: Liber Amicorum Professor Christian Dominicé in Honour of his 80th Birthday, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Leiden, 2012, pp. 371–382.
34 - See Report of the Conference of Government Experts of 1947, p. 179; Minutes of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Committee II, Vol. II, 23rd meeting, pp. 54–55; and Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, pp. 342–344. See also Tallinn Manual 2.0 on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations (2017), Rule 137.
35 - See Minutes of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Committee II, Vol. II, 23rd meeting, p. 35 (United Kingdom). See also Levie, pp. 334–335; Rosas, pp. 450–451; Maia/Kolb/Scalia, pp. 336–337; and Silvia Sanna, ‘Treatment of Prisoners of War’, in Andrew Clapham, Paola Gaeta and Marco Sassòli (eds), The 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 977–1012, at 1003. The ICTY Trial Chamber in Naletilić and Martinović also took this position; Trial Judgment, 2003, para. 258. For an analysis of this decision, see Pascale Chifflet, ‘Recent Legal Developments: The Judgement of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in Prosecutor v. Mladen Naletilić and Vinko Martinović’, Leiden Journal of International Law, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2003, pp. 525–539, at 526–531.
36 - See the commentary on Article 52, section C. As a safeguard, some military manuals require prisoners’ written consent to carry out otherwise prohibited work. See e.g. Russian Federation, Regulations on the Application of IHL, 2001, para. 53: ‘[T]he employment of prisoners of war in dangerous type of works (including mine clearing) can be exercised only upon consent of the prisoners of war in writing.’
37 - See the commentary on Article 7, para. 1170.
38 - See the commentary on Article 7, para. 1177, and Hingorani, p. 149.
39 - For more details, see the commentary on Article 78.
40 - See Minutes of the Conference of Government Experts of 1947, Committee II, Vol. III, 13th meeting, pp. 432–433. This aspect was already included in Article 31, para. 2, of the 1929 Convention.
41 - The role of the ICRC is particularly important in the absence of a Protecting Power. For more details, see the commentary on Article 78, sections C and D, and Introduction, paras 50–51. See also Hingorani, p. 143.