In its war with Russia, Ukraine may be outmatched in terms of sheer numbers and military resources, but it appears to have the upper hand in soliciting goodwill from the rest of the world. Its telegenic president Volodymyr Zelensky has been eliciting comparisons to Winston Churchill with his stirring speeches. Stories of heroism and grit coming out of the country have been catnip for social media.
However, one of the country’s latest publicity tactics may have crossed a line. Over the weekend, Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs began posting videos on sites like YouTube and Twitter of what appear to be captured Russian soldiers giving testimonials to interrogators about the misinformation they’d been hearing from the Kremlin justifying the war. The soldiers are not identified, and it’s unclear whether they’re under duress. The ministry has also been posting grisly images of dead soldiers on the battlefield.
The aim of these posts seems clear: to demonstrate that Russia’s own soldiers have been duped and are also suffering from their government’s aggression. Yet using prisoners of war for such purposes may violate the Geneva Conventions. The Third Geneva Convention states, in part, that “prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” The provision was originally intended to prevent the once-common practice of parading captured soldiers through towns, thereby subjecting them to insults and potential violence from local populations.
Since it was adopted in 1949, governments and the international humanitarian law community have universally interpreted the “public curiosity” stipulation to include protections for prisoners of war against having their likenesses disseminated publicly through photographs, television, and other mediums. Human rights organizations and scholars say that social media falls under that umbrella as well. “When the language was originally written, it could have concerned ‘public curiosity’ through the sharing of images of POWs via TV footage or black and white photographs. Today it can mean an individual live streaming from his personal phone to millions of viewers,” representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross wrote over email. “International Humanitarian Law does not make any distinction as to the communication channel used.”
If Ukraine is found to have violated the law, it would at the very least have to stop posting such images, though it’s possible that some further remedy would be required as well. “It may be that all that is owed in this context is cessation, nonrepetition, and some form of apology, or what we call ‘satisfaction,’ ” said Adil Haque, a professor at Rutgers Law School who specializes in the ethics of armed conflict. “It doesn’t have to be a monetary payment.” Russia has, of course, been accused of much more serious human rights violations, such as shelling civilian areas in Ukraine. Russia also broadcast footage of Ukrainian sailors it captured on state television in 2018, a move that Ukraine’s diplomats criticized as breaking humanitarian laws at the time. Yet obligations set in international humanitarian law generally do not depend on reciprocity, as it’s meant to protect individuals as well as states involved in a conflict. Humanitarian law scholars have argued that Ukraine would also be wise to abide by human rights conventions in order to keep the global community on its side.
The prohibition on publicizing images or videos of prisoners of war is “usually couched in terms of dignity and the mental integrity of the prisoner, so even if what they’re saying is not itself humiliating or degrading, the very fact that they are being made or encouraged to put their thoughts out there is kind of a violation of their mental integrity,” said Haque. “They should be able to keep their thoughts to themselves except for very specific circumstances.” Those circumstances could include getting identifying information from captured soldiers or investigating them in proceedings for war crimes, but such processes typically do not need to happen in public.
The videos of the Russian soldiers arguably show them to be sympathetic figures, dispatched to a brutal war without a full picture of what’s really going on. However, Haque argues that this still could violate their privacy and mental integrity, and that prohibiting such activity across the board is ultimately more prudent. “Even if a particular instance of recording a POW might seem harmless, especially if they’re actually being portrayed in a sympathetic light, the idea is we need a broad prohibition so we don’t have to debate on a case-by-case basis whether this is a good or bad subjection to public curiosity,” he said.
In the past, other governments have also putatively released recordings of captured soldiers to prove that they are being treated well. For instance, when Iran seized two U.S. Navy ships that had crossed into its territory in the Persian Gulf while experiencing mechanical issues in 2016, the government’s state media networks disseminated videos and pictures of the apprehended sailors partly to demonstrate that they were unharmed. Yet even in this case, as Haque notes, Iran should have just sent documentation of the sailors’ conditions directly to U.S. officials without releasing images to the wider public.
While the rise of social media doesn’t necessarily change how appropriate it is to publicly share recordings of prisoners of war, the technology does potentially make violations of the Third Geneva Convention more common—and potentially more harmful. Given that smartphones have made the wider populace more comfortable with having their likenesses recorded and posted to social media in normal life, it can be important to be sensitive to how this seemingly banal activity can have graver consequences in wartime. “Being a victim of an armed conflict, as a civilian or as a wounded, sick, dead or captured soldier, should not be considered as ‘normal life,’ ” wrote the ICRC representatives. “As far as POWs are concerned, one should consider that because they are under the custody or in the hands of the other party to the conflict, they are in a situation of particular vulnerability. Their situation should be assessed through their eyes and not the ones of journalists or social media users, or the eyes of the custodial authorities who sometimes may even act in good faith.”
Haque adds that social media seems to create even more of a demand for images of prisoners of war, as such content tends to go viral. He fears that governments now have more of an incentive to disseminate such images. He said, “when it goes viral on social media, it sort of sends a message that you can get something out of distributing these video recordings in terms of your broader information campaign.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.