Happy Star Wars Day to all! Today marks the day Star Wars fans are bound by Imperial decree to shove aside all other adult responsibilities to instead focus on the galaxy far, far away. To mark the occasion, we’ll be taking up the case of Princess Leia’s imprisonment in A New Hope.
As the movie begins, we catch up with Princess Leia on her terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. After narrowly escaping from the Battle of Scarif, Leia’s mission to bring both the Death Star plans and Obi-Wan back to the Rebellion is cut short by her crazed Sith Lord father. After Vader’s Star Destroyer nearly turns her ship into Swiss cheese, Leia is taken captive and imprisoned on the Death Star.
Rebel scum and sympathizers alike have decried Leia’s treatment at the hands of the Empire, but did the Empire really owe her any protections under international law?
Leia is often described as being a “prisoner of war,” or POW, while aboard the Death Star. The logic behind it is pretty straightforward: The Rebel Alliance is at war with the Empire; Leia is a part of the Rebel Alliance and gets captured, which means she’s a POW. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, right? Not so fast, flyboy.
“Prisoner of war” isn’t a blanket term used to describe any enemy fighter who gets captured. On real world battlefields, “POW” is a complex designation that carries a lot of legal significance.
Historically, you were in deep bantha poodoo if you got captured during war. Prisoners had no legal protections and became the property of the victor. They could be killed, sold, or even forced to serve drinks on Jabba’s sail barge in humiliating fashion. The progress towards granting legal protections for POWs advanced about as slowly as a rusty Sandcrawler, even in the United States. During the American Civil War, POWs from both sides suffered untold horrors at the hands of their captors, with 26,486 Southerners and 22,576 Notherners dying in POW camps.
Even nearly 80 years later during World War II the law still had not evolved to fully protect POWs. Prisoners of the Japanese were often subjected to infamously heinous treatment. To the Japanese, the concept of humane treatment of POWs was a foreign one, as they viewed surrendering Soldiers as traitors and a disgrace.
It wasn’t until after World War II that international law finally developed a more robust set of protections for POWs. Under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, POWs were entitled to a host of protections, including humane treatment, protection from violence and intimidation, and medical care, to name just a few. Additionally, POWs are generally considered legally immune for their per-capture acts of war (e.g. killing or destroying military equipment). POWs are also protected from torture, coercion, and threats during interrogation.
But those sweeping protections come with a Death Star sized asterisk: They don’t apply to just any ole’ person captured on the battlefield. The POW status is only available to certain persons on the battlefield in certain types of armed conflict. If that sounds like a confusing set of legal hurdles, that’s because it absolutely is. But to make things simple, we’ll presume that it’s possible for Rebels to qualify as POWs.
Since not everyone captured on the battlefield is considered a POW, Leia’s fate hinges on how she is classified. Grand Moff Tarkin would scoff at the very idea of affording any sort of protection to the traitorous Princess of Alderaan. Tarkin would coolly point out that Leia’s thin veneer as an innocent politician hid her true status as a high-ranking Rebel spy.
Under both Article 29 of the Hague Convention and Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, spies are not entitled to POW status. The Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Law of Warfare Field Manual 27-10 define espionage as “acting clandestinely (or on false pretenses) to obtain information for transmission back to friendly territory.”
But on the other side of the scale, Leia’s dual role might serve her well. Under international law, belligerent diplomats are afforded POW protections (that phrase should immediately conjure images of Padme blasting waves of droids on Geonosis). To qualify for the truly awesome title of “belligerent diplomat,” you have to both hold a political office and be a member of an armed force.
At first blush, Leia seems to be the dictionary definition of a belligerent diplomat (AKA an aggressive negotiator). After all, she’s the youngest elected Imperial Senator and a rising political star in the galaxy. Leia has also been intimately involved with the Rebellion since its earliest days. Even though she is careful to hide her involvement with the group, there is little doubt that Leia is a member of the Rebel Alliance’s armed forces by the time of A New Hope, having just accompanied the Rebel fleet to Scarif in its single largest military strike.
Given how Rogue One ended, Leia’s claim that she was on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan might seem like a ridiculous lie born of pure desperation. However, Leia is no fool. While her lie might have been a long shot, her words were carefully chosen and incredibly selfless given their legal significance.
As stormtroopers marched her in front of Vader, Leia faced a terrible choice. On one hand, she could admit to being part of the Rebel Alliance. She could have then demanded POW status as a belligerent diplomat. She would have still been imprisoned, but her personal safety would have been guaranteed under the legal protections afforded to POWs.
But Leia fully realized that securing her own safety would in turn risk the lives of countless others. Had she openly admitted to being a Rebel, the Empire would have had damning proof that Alderaan was intertwined with the Rebellion at the highest levels of its government. If Leia–a member of House Organa and the daughter of two of Alderaan’s highest officials–admitted to being a Rebel, the Emperor could easily declare the entire planet as traitors to the Empire. Leia knew that if she handed Palpatine that kind of smoking gun, he could justify any number of hostile actions against Alderaan, from a blockade to a full occupation force.
Instead, Leia chose to gamble with her own life. By playing up the thin façade that she was an innocent diplomat, Leia risked being branded as a spy. In the real world, the Geneva Conventions offer no protection for acts of espionage and spies may be tried under the laws of the capturing nation. Given the Empire’s distaste for Rebels, that likely meant a swift execution. Leia absolutely knew that risk as she stepped in front of Vader.
Leia also undoubtedly realized that getting caught ferrying the Death Star plans under the cover of a diplomatic mission would be the literal textbook definition of espionage. As Leia sent R2-D2 off to the escape pods, Leia had no illusions about her fate. She made no plea for Obi-Wan to come rescue her and had no plans to avail herself of POW protections, given the dear price Alderaan would likely pay as a result.
Leia therefore lied to Vader’s face not because she honestly thought he would buy it, but because it was part of her last full measure to protect her people and the Rebellion.
In the end, Leia didn’t peddle some silly pointless lie after being captured; her words were carefully chosen and had serious legal significance and consequence for her. While Vader and the rest of the Imperials were playing checkers, Leia was playing chess (or Dejarik, if we’re staying in-universe with all references) by using the law of war to protect the Alderaanian people and to help the Rebellion fight another day.