Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
Treaties and Documents
Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries
Historical Treaties and Documents
Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
. -- CENTRAL AGENCY
[p.541] GENERAL REMARKS AND HISTORICAL SURVEY
It is impossible in this study to examine in detail the nature and mode of operation of the Central Information Agency: the subject is too vast (1). The Agency dates back to 1870. During the Franco-German war, the International Committee of the Red Cross first took the initiative of opening in Basle an official Agency concerned with wounded and sick soldiers and soon after added an office for collecting and forwarding all possible information concerning prisoners of war. The same thing was done in 1877 at Trieste and in 1912 at Belgrade. It was in 1914, however, that the establishment of an international Prisoners of War Agency faced the International Committee with all the complexities of the vast problem of collecting and forwarding information concerning wounded, sick or deceased prisoners and civilians. A year after its establishment, the Agency was already employing 1200 persons and through its unexpectedly rapid growth had taken on considerable importance. The experience thus gained enabled the International Committee to suggest to the Diplomatic Conference of 1929 that it should give legal sanction to the existence and operation of the Agency in the Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Article 79
of that Convention provided the legal basis which in 1939 enabled the International Committee to open in Geneva the Central Prisoners of War Agency, the immense scale of whose activities is still universally remembered; a few figures will illustrate its work: in premises with a total working area of 11,000 m2 worked 2585 people, of whom 1676 gave their services free; whereas at the end of the First World War the card-indexes of the International Agency contained 7 million cards, those of the Central Agency contained 36 million at the end of June 1947, between 6 and 7 million of them concerning civilians.
The 1949 Diplomatic Conference was therefore careful not to interfere with the structure and legal basis of the Agency, which it [p.542] confirmed in the Third Convention and, in identical terms, in the Fourth, merely adding in both cases a request to the High Contracting Parties to give the Central Agency any financial aid it might require.
PARAGRAPH 1. -- ESTABLISHMENT. ORGANIZATION
Some delegates to the 1949 Diplomatic Conference, emphasizing that the establishment of the Agency was imperative under the terms of several Articles in the Third and Fourth Conventions, wondered whether the 1929 text should not be amended in order to make it obligatory, if not automatic, for the International Committee of the Red Cross to organize the Agency. They were, however, the first to recognize the correctness of the International Committee's viewpoint, when it pointed out that the 1929 wording was much to be preferred and ought to be left unchanged. Its very flexibility, indeed, made it possible for the International Committee to meet any sort of situation, by not setting up an Agency, for instance, when the brief duration of a conflict did not justify it, or transferring the Agency or some of its departments to a country more easily accessible to the belligerents, as it did during the Balkans war in 1912 (2).
Furthermore, provision must be made for cases when the International Committee might not wish to establish the Agency itself, for example when it considered that other bodies or a national Red Cross Society would be better fitted in the circumstances to carry out the task. It may, furthermore, be forced by events to cease activities; it is then important that the possibility should remain of others taking over all or part of those activities, and especially the establishment of the Agency.
The International Committee is not, therefore, obliged itself to organize the Central Agency. It is merely to "propose" the establishment of the Agency to the Powers concerned "if it deems necessary". Do these words, which date from the 1929 Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, mean that the Powers could reject the suggestion? They do, but the Powers would then have to agree to the establishment somehow of a Central Information Agency in a neutral country, for its establishment is obligatory.
Another point is also left to the discretion of the International Committee of the Red Cross: whether to seperate the Agency concerned with civilians from that to be set up under Article 123
of the [p.543] Third Convention for the benefit of the wounded and sick and prisoners of war. The circumstances ruling at the time may indeed lead it to prefer two separate Agencies, in different countries for example. Such circumstances will, of course, be exceptional, since the advantages of combining the two Agencies into a single body are numerous and obvious: they would use the same working methods, the same type of skilled staff, the same machines, etc.
Only one obligation arises under this paragraph, i.e. that the Central Information Agency shall be created in a neutral country. The Agency, indeed, must be neutral if it is to work. As an intermediary between two or more belligerents, it cannot accomplish its humanitarian task, which requires absolute confidence on their part, except by observing complete impartiality in its methods of work and in the attitude of its staff. Furthermore, the Agency must be in almost continuous contact with the belligerent Parties and such contact can only be maintained if it has its headquarters in a neutral country.
A conflict might conceivably break out, however, in which there were no more neutral countries or at least which left neutral only countries unfitted for or opposed to the establishment of the Agency on their territory. It would then be for the belligerents themselves to come to a direct agreement to entrust the establishment of an Agency to an institution of their own choice, such as a Red Cross Society in one of the belligerent countries, or to agree on a certain amount of postal traffic for the exchange, which is obligatory, of information concerning their nationals.
PARAGRAPH 2. -- TASKS OF THE AGENCY
1. ' Collection and nature of information '
The first task of the Agency is to collect all possible information concerning the protected persons. It will obtain that information first of all from the national Information Bureaux as envisaged in Article 137
; this represents the "official channels". It may, however, resort to other methods of collection, i.e. "private channels". Indeed, nothing must prevent the Agency from trying to obtain the greatest possible amount of information concerning persons sought by their family and from approaching all those who might be of assistance, whether public authorities, institutions, or private persons.
This concentration of information, and the fact that the Agency brings together items of information from all the belligerent countries, gives its work considerable value, particularly when war-torn countries [p.544] are disorganized and their archives scattered. It is also of tremendous importance when protected persons are of uncertain nationality or when particulars concerning them must be communicated to a large number of countries.
As a rule, this information will deal with the various steps taken with regard to protected persons kept in custody for more than two weeks, subjected to assigned residence or interned, all these being measures which national Bureaux are obliged to communicate to the Agency by virtue of Article 136
. This information, however, may not be sufficient or the Agency may wish for information concerning other categories of protected persons. It will seek such information by whatever methods it considers best, if the national Bureau cannot supply it.
Another task of no less importance consists in transmitting to the various national Bureaux, safe-keeping and filing information, documents and articles which the Powers themselves are obliged to send to the Agency under various Articles of the Convention. Those Articles are as follows:
Article 24, paragraph 2
, which provides that the Central Agency shall assist in the exchange of family correspondence if correspondence by ordinary post becomes difficult or impossible;
Article 91, paragraph 4
, which provides that duplicates of medical certificates issued at their request to civilian internees shall be forwarded to the Central Agency;
, which provides for the transmission through the Protecting Power or the Central Agency, of wills, powers of attorney, letters of authority or any other documents intended for internees or despatched by them;
, which provides that duly certified copies of official records of death shall be transmitted to the Central Agency;
, which provides for the collection and forwarding of personal valuables belonging to protected persons who have been repatriated or have died.
One activity of the Agency, now dealt with also in Article 106
of the Convention, is concerned with the receipt and filing of internment cards and the transmission of the information contained in them. This task can become a very extensive one. It will be similar to that undertaken by the Agency with regard to the prisoner-of-war capture cards mentioned in Article 70
of the Third Convention of 1949.
The very title "Central Information Agency" indicates the size of the task of replying to enquiries sent from all sides in times of conflict and the investigations made necessary by these enquiries. In that respect, it should be noted that its work would be greatly [p.545] eased if all information and requests for enquiry or search were sent to it on cards of a uniform type and of the same dimensions as the internment cards (10 x 15 cm.) (3), which the national Red Cross Societies, for example, could draw up and make available to enquirers.
Apart from its tasks under the Convention, the Central Agency can take over a number of other activities in accordance with circumstances and requirements. Noteworthy examples of these are taken from the numerous activities of the Agency during the Second World War:
The Agency received and forwarded a large number of photographs of civilians, whether interned or not, and of funerals and graves. Encouraged by the wide interest aroused by these photographs and their sentimental value, it did everything possible to increase their number. It set up a special department dealing particularly with civilians not protected by Conventions at that time: the stateless, refugees, deported persons and those subjected to persecution. The Agency undertook special enquiries and in some cases achieved encouraging success. It dealt actively with the emigration of refugees or stateless persons to various countries of asylum. It established a department whose task it was to find the various members of a family separated by the events of war and to reunite them etc. (4)
2. ' Transmission of information '
Items of information concerning civilians will, as a rule, be treated by the Agency in the same way as those dealing with prisoners of war. They will be transmitted to the "country of origin" of the civilians. When, however, the civilians and their families do not reside any longer in that country, the information will then be transmitted to the "country of residence".
[p.546] The draft Article submitted to the Diplomatic Conference spoke of the country "of domicile". The Conference preferred the word "residence" as being more general and less likely to raise legal difficulties, since the Word "domicile" has a precise meaning in law Which varies from country to country.
The authorities or bodies in those countries which are to receive the information are deliberately not named. Every State is therefore free to designate as it wishes the recipient of information communicated by the Agency. Sometimes, the recipient will be the national Information Bureau, which is the natural correspondent for the Agency. However, the Agency is not even obliged to communicate its information to an official body only; if it considers it expedient, it may also transmit information direct to the persons concerned. It may even transmit it only to those persons or may refrain from forwarding it at all if it appears dangerous. Indeed, paragraph 2 of Article 137
stipulates that if the transmission of information might be detrimental to the person concerned or to his or her relatives, the national Bureau shall be obliged to warn the Agency, which will take the "necessary precautions". These precautions are indicated here: the Agency will not transmit information to the country of origin or residence "in cases where such transmissions might be detrimental to
the persons whom the said information concerns or to their relatives". What it will do with the information in such cases will depend on circumstances; as a rule it will get in touch with the person concerned and discuss the best way to act.
3. ' Facilities for transmission '
One of the essential factors determining the effectiveness of the Central Agency is the rapidity with which it can transmit information, particularly to the national Information Bureaux. In this respect, the paragraph is explicit: the Agency must transmit "as rapidly as possible" to the Powers concerned the information it receives.
The slowness of postal communications or the great distances involved have often obliged the Agency to use the telegraph, but this was financially very burdensome and the expenditure which the Agency had to claim from the States concerned was often only reimbursed with great reluctance. Henceforth, the use of telegrams will be made easier by Article 141
, which provides that the Agency must, so far as possible, be given the benefit of partial or total exemption from telegraphic charges.
However, the clause which seems likely to have the greatest importance for the Central Agency is the final provision of this paragraph: [p.547] "It shall receive from the Parties to the conflict all reasonable facilities for effecting such transmissions".
Since exemptions from charges and financial help for the Agency are expressly provided for in Article 141
, it may be deduced that the facilities mentioned here are more material than financial. The statement implies that the Central Agency will be able to request a certain priority for its communications, both in postal and telegraphic traffic, a priority which will, of course, have to make due allowance for the requirements of the war effort. The Convention mentions only the Parties to the conflict, but the non-belligerents, who are not subject to these requirements, should also be obliged to an even greater extent to grant priorities of this kind.
This stipulation is of still greater value in respect of a means of communication which the Agency was led to develop at the end of the war for the most varied purposes, i.e. broadcasting. This method is likely to play a useful part in the reception and transmission of information, in so far as it takes into account on the one hand the need not to distort the names of the persons concerned and, on the other hand, the legitimate desire of the belligerents that the information given may not be exploited for military or propaganda purposes.
Therefore, at the request of the International Committee of the Red Cross, supported by the national Red Cross Societies, the International High Frequency Broadcasting Conference held in Mexico in 1947, decided to allocate to the International Committee through the Swiss Confederation, a certain number of broadcasting times and frequencies which might, in case of need, be allocated wholly or in part to the Agency. This is a first application of the provision examined above.
The provision goes further: it implies an obligation on the States parties to the Convention to respect the broadcasts of the Central Agency for humanitarian purposes -- i.e., not only to refrain from jamming them, but to put their broadcasting services at the disposal of representatives or departments of the Agency abroad, in order to enable them to establish rapid contact with Geneva or any other place where the Agency might be situated.
Another "facility" which might be granted to facilitate the work of the Agency arises from Article 111
of the Convention, which deals with the means of transport which might be provided by the Protecting Powers, the International Committee of the Red Cross or any other authorized body, in order to ensure the forwarding of the consignments mentioned in Articles 106
, if the Powers concerned were prevented from doing so. These means of transport could, in case of need, also be used by the Central Agency for forwarding [p.548] the correspondence, lists and reports which it exchanges with the national Bureaux.
One comment is necessary with regard to the last sentence of the paragraph. The corresponding provision of the Third Convention (last sentence, paragraph 2, Article 123
), is identical except for the Word "reasonable"; "facilities" is used without the adjective which Was introduced by Committee III of the Diplomatic Conference for the sake of accuracy. It must be admitted that it does not add very much to the sense, and may even appear to restrict the scope of the provision to some extent. The facilities which the Parties to the conflict will be able to grant to the Agency will certainly always be "possible" and in no case "unreasonable".
PARAGRAPH 3. -- FINANCIAL SUPPORT
During the preparatory work for the revision of the Convention, the attention of Governments was drawn to the question of the expenditure incurred in the operation of the Central Agency, a question which the 1929 Convention did not regulate.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, When called upon to organize the Agency, has always drawn on the funds at its disposal for the means necessary for the Agency to operate. It may happen, however, and did during the last world war, that the Agency's activities suddenly expand to an unexpected extent, so that the funds which the Committee has available, which are always restricted and are needed for many other tasks, may prove inadequate. Now the Agency must be able to operate uninterruptedly. It was therefore natural that the Powers concerned should seek to ensure that it receives the necessary funds.
For that purpose, the XVIIth International Red Cross Conference made provision in the Third Convention for an apportionment of expenses among the belligerents ' pro rata ' to the services the Agency rendered to their nationals. However, the insistence on proportional payment, apart from the difficulties of accountancy which it might entail, failed to take into account two facts: on the one hand any step taken by the Agency in behalf of a prisoner or an internee is not only to the advantage of the State of which he is a national, but also indirectly, and to a certain degree, to the advantage of the Detaining Power; on the other hand, prisoners of war or civilian internees may no longer have a Government to meet these expenses, and yet they need the services of the Agency at least as much as if not more than the others.
[p.549] It was with these facts in mind that the Diplomatic Conference finally abandoned the principle of proportionality and adopted without change paragraph 3 of Article 123
of the Third Convention. The wording of this paragraph, despite the fact that it is less imperative than that of the Stockholm Draft, was considered suitable for emphasizing the fact that the operation of the Agency, in view of its importance, must in no case be hindered by lack of financial means and for calling the attention not only of the belligerent Powers, but of all States parties to the Convention to this matter, since they all implicitly recognize the usefulness and universality of the Central Information Agency.
PARAGRAPH 4. -- OTHER HUMANITARIAN ACTIVITIES
In the 1929 Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, the organization of the Central Agency was the only specific activity of the International Committee of the Red Cross to receive express mention (except the right to carry out its humanitarian work, mentioned in general terms in Article 88
). It was necessary, therefore, to state clearly, as was done in the last paragraph of the Article on the Agency, that the mention of these activities was not intended to exclude action being taken by the International Committee in behalf of prisoners in other domains.
The 1949 Conventions provide expressly for the other specific activities of the International Committee, apart from those falling within the competence of the Agency (relief, camp visits, etc.). However, the last paragraph of the 1929 text was repeated and for this there can be no explanation unless an entirely general sense is henceforth given to the clause. It is, it seems, in the nature of a reservation which might be added to any of the clauses of the Conventions which entrust a task to the Committee and which means that none of them must restrict the manifold activities which the Committee may be led to undertake, partly with the assistance of the national Red Cross Societies, to meet the requirements of persons protected by the 1949 Conventions.
Paragraph 3 of the 1929 Article is reproduced, however, with a small addition -- i.e. "and of the relief Societies described in Article 125
" (Third Convention) or "... in Article 142
" (Fourth Convention).
At first sight, the connection between these phrases and what goes before is not very clear. In fact, the situation which they are intended to cover is very different from that envisaged at the beginning of the paragraph and there would have been some advantage in [p.550] embodying the provision, more explicitly, in another Article, for example the one relating to relief societies. Perhaps, however, the addition is to be explained simply by a wish not to attach too much importance to what is merely a contingency.
It might happen, indeed, and has done in the past, that an organization for assistance to prisoners of war and civilian internees approved by the Powers concerned, may successfully develop activities connected with the transmission and collection of information concerning prisoners and internees, although such activities are not explicitly mentioned among the tasks listed in the Article on relief societies as being among their functions. In such a case, it would be regrettable if activities of that kind, which might be useful to a great number of war victims, were to be rejected by a belligerent on the pretext that the Central Agency has a monopoly in the matter. In humanitarian activities, such a pretext is inadmissible and the addition to the paragraph is intended to make that point clear.
It should be noted, however, that if a belligerent Power approved the activities of a relief society in this sphere and agreed to supply it with information concerning the protected persons, whether members of the armed forces or civilians, held in detention, it would nevertheless still be obliged to communicate periodically to the Central Agency, in accordance with the provisions of the Conventions, information concerning those persons. A sharp distinction must be drawn between the basic, universal and obligatory character of the Agency's activities and the probably more restricted and optional character of activities which might be developed by a relief society for the same purposes. Nothing must be done to whittle down the requirements of the Conventions: centralization in a single department, neutral from every point of view, of all information concerning protected persons, whether members of the armed forces or civilians, as the only method of enabling the greatest advantage to be drawn from such information for the persons themselves, a
fact proved by the experience of two world wars and well understood by the Diplomatic Conferences of 1929 and 1949.
Notes: (1) [(1) p.541] For further information, see ' Report of the
International Committee of the Red Cross on its activities
during the Second World War, ' Vol. II: The Central Agency
for Prisoners of War, Geneva, 1948;
(2) [(1) p.542] The XVIIth International Red Cross Conference
adopted a Resolution (No. XVII) inviting the Governments
to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross
every facility in cases where transfers of this kind were
(3) [(1) p.545] It should be noted, in this connection, that
the prisoner-of-war capture card as suggested in the
specimen annexed to the Third Convention (Annex IV)
measures 10.5 x 15 cm. This slight difference in width is
doubtless the result of a mistake, for there is no reason
to make these two cards of different sizes, far from it.
It would therefore be advisable for the Powers, when
drawing up capture and internment cards, to keep to one of
these two sizes for both sorts of cards. A width of 10 cm.
would seem to be preferable; on the other hand, it is
important that they should not be more than 15 cm. long,
otherwise they would not fit in the present card-indexes
of the Agency. It should further be noted that if these
sizes should appear inadequate, it would be always
possible to draw up a folding card of double size (20 x 15
cm.) also accepted by postal authorities;
(4) [(2) p.545] See, for more details, the ' Report of the
International Committee of the Red Cross on its activities
during the Second World War, ' Vol. II: The Central Agency
for Prisoners of War, Geneva, 1948;