Decoding the Geneva Conventions: Was Abhinandan’s Release a ‘Gesture of Peace’?

Social share icons

Last evening, the entire nation went into the mood of celebration as the braveheart IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman returned to India and was received by the Indian Air Force at the Wagah border. He was kept in captivity by Pakistan for two days during an aerial confrontation with the F-16s of Pakistan.On Thursday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that the Wing Commander will be released soon and it came as a big surprise in the midst of the increasing tensions between India and Pakistan post the grave aerial dogfight. During his Parliament speech, Khan called Abhinandan’s release a “gesture of peace”. However, many Indians as well as the forces have refused to believe that it was a gesture of peace and are suggestive of the fact that Pakistan was bound to release Abhinandan due to the Geneva Conventions.

Do you know what the Geneva Conventions are and does Wing Commander Abhinandan actually fit in the bill to be a ‘Prisoner of War’? Come, let’s find out.

The Geneva Conventions in Detail


Adopted in 1949, the Geneva Conventions came in existence during the World War II. There are four Geneva Conventions in total and they have three protocols which were added in 1977. These conventions have continued to be applied till today during situations like armed disputes. 196 countries have ratified the conventions. The conventions are:

  1. For the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field“: The first convention demands that all the infirm and injured soldiers as well as chaplains and medical personnel are to be treated in a humane manner with no discrimination on the basis of faith, religion, gender, colour, race, and so on. It forbids acts like mutilation, tortures, execution without judgment as well as outrage over one’s personal dignity. It also provides them the right to get proper care and medication.
  2. For the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea“: The second convention expands all the protections mentioned above to the naval forces and shipwrecked soldiers. This also includes special protections that are afforded to the hospital ships.
  3. Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War”: The third convention is in regard to the treatment that the Prisoners of War must receive.
  4. Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War“: The last one doesn’t deal with the combatants but emphasizes on the civilians’ protection during wars.

IAF Commander Abhinandan Varthaman: A Prisoner of War?

How Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman shot down Pakistan's F-16 jet and emerged as a national hero

One must keep in mind that Abhinandan is neither identified as a Prisoner of War by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs nor by the Pakistani MEA. Nevertheless, the third Geneva Convention applies to “all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the signatories, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them.”

Indian Law Institute’s Director and an international law expert, Prof. Manoj Kumar Sinha, said that whether it’s determined that an armed conflict or state of war is prevailing; a person holds the right to be treated humanely and with utter respect while s/he is captured by any other nation. As per the International Humanitarian Law and UDHR, the IAF member has to be provided with all the rights.

Sinha also made clear that according to the conventions, as soon as the war or conflict period is over, the country needs to hand over the officer to the country of his origin.

What are the rights bestowed on a Prisoner of War (PoW)?

Free State Soldiers take a break from fighting on the street in Dublin possibly during the fighting of the four courts where wounded men are being tended to while others catch their breath. The Irish Civil War was a conflict that followed the Irish War of Independence and came alongside the establishment of the Irish Free State, an entity independent from the United Kingdom but within the British Empire. The civil war was waged between two opposing groups, Irish republicans and Irish nationalists, over the Anglo-Irish Treaty

As per the third Geneva Convention’s Article 13, Prisoners of War have to be “humanely treated” throughout their captivity. Any omission or unlawful act by the Detaining Power resulting in the death or serious health issues of the PoW is strictly forbidden. It would be regarded as one of the most serious breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

According to the conventions, the PoWs need to be protected from public curiosity, insults, intimidation and/or violence. In this context, the military spokesperson of Pakistan might have just crossed the line by tweeting a picture of the captive IAF Wing Commander. Airing images of the captured prisoners on TV are also strictly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.

‘Gesture of Peace’ or bound by the Conventions?

Related image

One of the clauses of the convention says that the Prisoner of War must be surrendered to his/her nation of origin as soon as the period of conflict/war ends. PoWs “shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities”, states Article 118 of the third Convention.

In 1999, the only PoW of the Kargil War, Flight Lieutenant Kambampati Nachiketa was sent back to his home. This happened after the rejection by the Indian authorities of Pakistan’s advice of public handover in their foreign office. They backed their rejection with the Geneva Conventions.

On the pilot’s release, Former Army Chief and Union Minister V K Singh was quoted saying, “A lot of things are done in line with the Geneva Convention. We are happy that he is being released. If they call it a gesture of peace, we are happy for that too, but they need to do a lot more.”

Well, no matter what the reasons behind IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s release were, we must pay Pakistan its due respect for coming up with a sensible decision at a time of crisis and sending Abhinandan back to India, unharmed. If it really was a gesture of peace, we are glad that the hope of a better tomorrow, of better relations between the two neighbouring countries is not a far-fetched dream.





Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here