For many years after the fall of the Roman Empire, prisoners of war were simply killed by their captors. During feudal Europe, those attitudes changed. Prisoners were captured and used for slave labor or ransomed back to their homeland. These practices continued for many years until the seventeen and eighteen hundreds brought about new ways of thinking about many different subjects, including the treatment of prisoners of war.

De l'esprit des lois and Social Contract, by Montesquieu and Rousseau respectively, stated that the rights of the captor over a prisoner ended at the end of hostilities. This idea formed the basis for the modern treatment of prisoners of war. During the American Civil War the first written regulations on the treatment of prisoners of war was written by Francis Lieber . It was known then as Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field and is known today as General Order No. 100.

In 1899 the first convention discussing prisoners of war was held in Hague, Belgium. In 1907, a second convention was held in Hague again. However, during World War I, many of the points agreed to during the two conventions proved unenforceable because there was no language in either of the conventions requiring inspections of prison camps nor was there any correspondence allowed with prisoners. Because of this, the Red Cross began to lobby for a revision of the Hague Convention of 1907. In 1929, a new agreement was reached at the Geneva Convention which provided for the inspection of prison camps by neutral countries as well as for permission for prisoners to correspond with their families. The Red Cross would be in charge of that responsibility. Furthermore, the Geneva Convention also stated that a prisoner of war did not have to give their captor any information other than name and rank. Prisoners were also given the right to receive proper medical care and an adequate food supply.

After World War II, the treatment of prisoners as well as the refusal of the Soviet Union to release many German prisoners showed that the Geneva Convention of 1929 needed revisions. In 1949, the Geneva Convention reconvened to expand the categories of people entitled to prisoner of war status. This convention expanded the list to include organized resistances, militias, and volunteer corps. It also reaffirmed the idea of the immediate release of prisoners after the end of hostilities.

Almost all the countries in the world signed the Geneva convention agreement of 1949. Unfortunately, there have been many violators of these agreements in the years since. North Korea did not allow the Red Cross to access its territory, nor did it allow inspection of it prison camps. North and South Vietnam both violated the Geneva Convention agreements by torturing their prisoners. There have also been many violations committed in some of the more recent conflicts. For example, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia as well as in the Gulf War. Some people have even argued that the United States is violating convention rules by interrogating prisoners it has captured in Afghanistan. However, the United States claims that its prisoners do not fall under any categories spelled out in the Geneva Convention. Perhaps this situation may lead to future conventions which reaffirm, redefine, and introduce new language as to the treatment of prisoners of war.