Ukraine Government Says Russian POWs Will 'Work to Revive' Economy

The Ukrainian government reportedly says it wants to put Russian prisoners of war (POWs) to work in order to "revive" the country's war-torn economy, but the declaration has raised questions about whether Ukraine's plans violate international law.

In a Tuesday tweet, Illia Ponomarenko, a defense reporter with The Kyiv Independent, wrote, "The government now says Russian POWs are going to 'work to revive Ukraine's economy' in full compliance with international law." Having POWs perform labor does, it seems, comport with international law.

In order to fall within "full compliance with international law," Ukraine will have to follow the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the protocols that set the standards for humanitarian treatment in war.

Section III of the Conventions, which specifically covers POW labor, says, "The Detaining Power may utilize the labor of prisoners of war who are physically fit, taking into account their age, sex, rank and physical aptitude, and with a view particularly to maintaining them in a good state of physical and mental health."

Detained POWs may only be made to work in the fields of agriculture, manufacturing, public works, handling or transporting non-military goods, commercial business, domestic service and public utility services, the Conventions state.

Russian prisoners of war Ukraine forced labor
The Ukrainian government has said that Russian prisoners of war (POWs) are going to “work to revive Ukraine’s economy.” In this photo, prisoners from the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk walk between Ukraine and Russian forces on February 21, 2015, during a prisoner exchange. Vasily Maximov / AFP/Getty

POWs are forbidden from performing humiliating or dangerous work, such as removing landmines, unless they volunteer. They must be given hours and working conditions matching that of other laborers in their country and must be paid on a sliding scale set by either their military rank or the wages of the detaining country's military. POW workers must also be given an hourlong break and monthly medical examinations to ensure their continued health.

Any violations of the Geneva Conventions can be investigated and prosecuted by any country or, in certain circumstances, by international bodies such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the United Nations Security Council.

However, Amnesty International, a human rights organization, worries that Ukrainian authorities' public treatment of Russian POWs may have already violated other parts of the Conventions, particularly a section forbidding POWs from being made into a "public curiousity."

It's unclear how many Russian POWs are currently being held in Ukraine as well as their exact location or conditions of detainment. Ukraine said it hoped to exchange Russian POWs for Ukrainian ones as negotiators from both countries worked to establish a possible ceasefire and humanitarian evacuation corridors for fleeing Ukrainians.

In early March, Ukrainian authorities displayed a dozen Russian POWs at a Ukrainian news agency to describe their capture and treatment. While the prisoners "looked exhausted [they] showed no outward signs of having been mistreated," The New York Times reported.

Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs has also posted grisly photos and videos of killed and captured Russian soldiers on Telegram, Twitter and YouTube. The purpose, Ukrainian officials said, according to The Washington Post, is to alert Russians to the "devastating war effort the Kremlin has sought to conceal" and to help Russians identify loved ones.

Other videos posted by Ukrainian authorities have featured Russian POWs making phone calls to their families; being bound, blindfolded and interrogated by Ukrainian captors; or saying that they were deceived by Russian President Vladimir Putin about why they were sent to Ukraine.

"[Ukrainian authorities] don't want to turn the international community against them, Rachel E. VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School who has studied war crimes, told the Post. "They've got to be on the straight and narrow here. It's really dangerous for them in desperation to do things that are clearly prohibited."

Newsweek contacted the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, D.C., for comment.