Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 1958 

[p.551] As early as 1899, the need was recognized to grant prisoners of war and national Information Bureaux free postage for incoming and outgoing correspondence. Article 16 of the Hague Regulations of 1899 and 1907 embodied that principle, which was stated again in Article 80 of the 1929 Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. The postal Conventions concluded later, particularly that of 1906, confirmed the principle and made it fully effective.
At the beginning of the Second World War, the International Committee of the Red Cross asked the belligerents to extend exemption from postal charges to the Central Prisoners of War Agency in Geneva, and the request was granted without difficulty. Treatment of the Agency in the same way as a national Information Bureau in regard to postal charges, was considered most appropriate by all the conferences of experts held to discuss the revision of the Conventions, and the Diplomatic Conference of 1949 accepted it without hesitation, and all the more willingly in that it had recognized in the preceding Article (Article 140, paragraphs 2 and 3 ) that the Agency should receive from the Parties to the conflict all reasonable facilities with regard to the transmission of information and, if possible, some financial aid. Now the exemption from postal and other charges granted to the Agency and the Bureaux does more than merely emphasize the strictly humanitarian character of their activities; it reduces their expenses to a very considerable extent, a particularly
important factor for the Agency, since its financing depends mainly on the goodwill of the Parties to the conflict.
The exemptions granted are of three kinds: exemption from postal charges, exemption from transport charges and customs dues and exemption from telegraphic charges.

1. ' Exemption from postal charges '

In granting free postage for "all mail", the provision merely lays down a principle; it is for the States to take steps through their post office authorities to confirm that principle and embody it in law by means of the Conventions which the post offices conclude among themselves under the aegis of the Universal Postal Union. Indeed, for the post offices, exemption arises not from the Geneva Conventions, but from the postal Conventions. It is in those Conventions, therefore, that the nature and scope of the exemption granted to Information Bureaux and the Central Agency must be sought.
It was in Brussels in 1952 that the new Universal Postal Convention was drawn up, which gave effect to the provisions of the [p.552] 1949 Geneva Conventions. Bearing the date July 11, 1952, it entered into force on July 1, 1953. Article 37 deals with the matters under discussion here; the following is the text:

"' Universal Postal Convention '

Article 37

Free Postage for Items relating to Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees

1. Correspondence, insured letters and boxes, postal parcels and postal
money orders addressed to or sent by prisoners of war, either
directly or through the Information Bureaux and the Central Prisoner
of War Information Agency prescribed in Articles 122 and 123
respectively of the Geneva Convention of 12th August, 1949, relative
to the treatment of prisoners of war, are exempted from all postal
charges. Belligerents apprehended and interned in a neutral country
are classed as prisoners of war properly so called so far as the
application of the foregoing provisions is concerned.

2. The provisions of $ 1 apply also to items of correspondence, insured
letters and boxes, postal parcels and postal money orders originating
in other countries and addressed to or sent by civilian internees as
defined by the Geneva Convention of the 12th of August, 1949,
relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war, either
directly or through the Information Bureaux and the Central
Information Agency prescribed in Articles 136 and 140 respectively of
that Convention.

3. The National Information Bureaux and the Central Information Agencies
mentioned above also enjoy exemption from postage in respect of
correspondence, insured letters and boxes, postal parcels and postal
money orders concerning the persons referred to in $$ 1 to 2, which
they send or receive, either directly or as intermediaries, under the
conditions laid down in those paragraphs.

4. Items benefiting by the freedom from postal charges provided under $$
1 to 3 and the forms relating to them shall bear the indication
"Service des prisonniers de guerre" (Prisoners of War Service) or
"Service des internés" (Civilian Internees Service). These
indications may be followed by a translation in another language.

5. Parcels are admitted free of postage up to a weight of 5 kgs. The
weight limit is increased to 10 kgs. in the case of parcels whose
contents cannot be split up and of parcels addressed to a camp or the
prisoners' representatives there ("homme de confiance") for
distribution to the prisoners."

This Article calls for some comments.
[p.553] If paragraph 3 is taken literally, only items of correspondence concerning interned civilians (1) (as well as prisoners of war) which the Bureaux or the Agency despatch or receive, will have the advantage of exemption from postage. In principle, therefore, correspondence concerning other protected persons, particularly those subjected to assigned residence, has no right to this exemption.
However, it seems that this provision, which considerably restricts the general scope of Article 141 of the Fourth Convention, may nevertheless be interpreted in a more liberal sense. Indeed, Article 37 of the Postal Convention, in paragraphs 1 and 2, concentrates on the exemption which should be given to the persons protected by the Conventions.
Now, under Article 110 of the Fourth Convention, it is only interned civilians who, subject to certain reservations (2), have the right to free postage and not the other categories of protected persons. When dealing in paragraph 3 with the exemption granted to the national Bureaux and the Agency, those who drafted the Postal Convention, doubtless anxious to be brief, merely referred to the preceding paragraphs to indicate in respect of what persons the correspondence of the Bureaux and the Agency could benefit from exemption from postal charges, and perhaps they did not notice that in so doing they restricted the correspondence covered to that of interned civilians alone, mentioned in paragraph 2, whereas the Bureaux and the Agency should, under the Geneva Conventions, enjoy such exemption for all mail. It seems a justified inference that the restriction thus made by the authors of the Brussels Convention was not intentional. The preparatory documents and the numerous contacts which they made beforehand with the various parties concerned show
without any doubt that their main anxiety in this matter was to give the fullest possible effect to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and that they in no way intended -- and in any case were not competent -- to restrict the scope of a general principle approved by the Diplomatic Conference of 1949. The national Information Bureaux will, however, be well advised, on their establishment, to have this interpretation of the Universal Postal Convention confirmed by the postal authorities concerned. For its part, the International Committee of the Red Cross will do its best to have the principle confirmed and to try to ensure that [p.554] the next revision of the Postal Convention abolishes this anomaly and thus brings Article 37 into harmony with the humanitarian law of the Conventions.
In connection with this Article, it must be stated also that the list given in paragraph 3 of cases where free postage is granted is exhaustive. Free postage applies only to items of correspondence, i.e. cards, letters or similar objects, letters and boxes with a declared value, postal parcels of 5 kgs. -- 10 kgs. if the contents are indivisible -- and postal orders sent to or despatched by national Bureaux or the Agency.

2. ' Exemption from transport and customs charges '

In order not to make the Article unnecessarily long, the Diplomatic Conference, having laid down the principle of free postage, merely referred to Article 110 , which gives details of all the other exemptions which will be granted to civilian internees for the correspondence and packages sent by or to them and of which the national Bureaux and the Agency are also to have the benefit.
Article 110 , in the commentary on which all the details will be found, provides in addition to exemption from postal dues, to a certain extent, and exemption from telegraphic charges, which will be dealt with below:

(a) exemption from import, customs and other dues (first paragraph)

(b) exemption from transport costs (paragraphs 3 and 4).

This latter exemption refers to the cost of transporting consignments which by reason of their weight or any other cause cannot be sent by post. These charges are to be borne by the Detaining Power in all the territories under its control and by other Powers parties to the Convention in their respective territories. Costs connected with transport not covered by these paragraphs will be charged to the senders.

3. ' Exemption from telegraphic charges '

All the provisions concerning national Bureaux and the Agency insist, as We have seen, on the speed with which information must be collected and transmitted. Thus the use of telegrams, exceptional during the First World War, was common practice during the Second. By June 30, 1947, the Central Prisoners of War Agency had received 347,982 telegrams and had despatched 219,169, some of them containing several thousand words.
[p.555] However, while the sending of telegrams scarcely raises any financial problems for the national Bureaux, which generally depend directly on the State, they are very expensive for the Central Agency, which has not been able to use this form of communication until assured of reimbursement by the State concerned. Therefore, all the Conferences held in preparation for the revision of the Conventions expressed the wish that both the national Bureaux and the Agency should have the benefit of free telegraphic services in both directions.
The Diplomatic Conference complied with the request but could not make the provision obligatory, since there are many countries in which the organization and operation of the telegraphic system are in the hands of private companies. It did, however, make an urgent recommendation: so far as possible, exemption from telegraphic charges or at least considerable reductions in those charges should be granted.
It should be recalled, in this connection -- and this was explained in greater detail in connection with paragraph 5 of Article 110 -- that the International Telecommunication Conference (Buenos Aires 1952) adopted a resolution (No. 3) which recommended to the next Telegraph and Telephone Conference which will probably be held in 1957 or 1958:

"(1) to consider sympathetically whether, and to what extent the telegraph franking privileges and the reductions in telegraph charges envisaged in the Geneva Conventions mentioned above could be accorded;

(2) to make any necessary modifications to the International Telegraph Regulations."

It will be seen that the recommendation does not reject the idea of complete exemption. It can only be hoped that it is acted upon.

Notes: (1) [(1) p.553] Information given to the International
Committee of the Red Cross shows that the words "interned
civilians" should be understood, in the Universal Postal
Convention, as including both internees proper and persons
arrested and placed in civilian camps or prisons;

(2) [(2) p.553] See the commentary on Article 110;