The Third Convention places honour at the centre of protections for prisoners of war. This begs the question: what does ‘honour’ mean in the 21st century? There are at least three challenges to overcome in discerning a modern protective understanding of the term honour and how it is to be respected while detaining prisoners of war.
First is the reality that the term ‘honour’ is not as commonly used as a concept as it was previously (see for example, the usage trends on Google’s Ngram Viewer). It can conjure up a rather old-fashioned picture of the world, of knights, chivalry, and damsels in distress. Imagine Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg on his 80-day adventure around the world, facing off against the ‘Yankee’, Colonel Stamp Proctor, to avenge the insult to his honour. Or Shakespeare’s Henry V riling up his men on Saint Crispin’s day, declaring ‘if it be a sin to covert honour, I am the most offending soul alive’. For musical lovers, it might be the dramatic dual scenes of the acclaimed Broadway hit Hamilton. These sensationalized notions of honour could tempt one into thinking that the respect for honour is antiquated and divorced from the realities of modern warfare.
The concept of honour, as utilized by the Third Geneva Convention, provides the basis of core protections for all prisoners of war, and the meaning ascribed to it cannot be narrowly limited to any one historic notion of honour. Interpreting the concept of honour requires us to move beyond mere caricatures and seek the true essence of the term as it applies to all people. The Third Convention reflects and strengthens the universality of the notion of honour: all prisoners of war, regardless of rank, race, nationality, religion, political opinion, gender, age, or disability, are entitled to this respect.