Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
  • Print page
Commentary of 2020 
President of the International Committee of the Red Cross
The Third Geneva Convention remains the most comprehensive instrument for the protection of prisoners of war in international law today. Its purpose is to ensure that all such prisoners are treated humanely and held in decent conditions, regardless of which side they belong to.
The ICRC produced its original Commentary on the Third Convention in 1960. Seventy years later, there is a need to look at the provisions of this fundamental treaty through the prism of new developments in law and practice. As all international law, the Convention is a living instrument, and it must be interpreted and applied in light of contemporary circumstances.
In view of the decreasing respect for the basic human values enshrined in international law, the updated Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention is timely. It crucially clarifies the status of prisoners of war and the treatment due to them, so that what these rules mean today is understood by all.
The Convention aims to protect the physical and mental integrity of prisoners of war and to ensure that the detaining authorities provide for their physical and psychological needs. Under its provisions, murder, torture and any other form of inhumane or degrading treatment are prohibited. Prisoners of war must have access to food, health care and hygiene facilities, and it is mandatory to identify detained persons and to enable them to maintain contacts with the outside world so that they do not go missing.
Back to top
ICRC and prisoners of war
Promoting the humane treatment of prisoners of war has been at the heart of the ICRC’s work since its inception. To help injured or captured soldiers maintain contact with their families, the ICRC set up an agency in Basel in 1870, which was the predecessor of what is now the Central Tracing Agency.
During the First World War, the ICRC witnessed the horrific suffering of soldiers and sailors who had fallen into enemy hands. It became clear that the existing legal framework did not adequately protect them. Renée-Marguerite Frick Cramer, one of the first women to work for the ICRC, was instrumental in the drafting of the first Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoner of War of 1929, which States used as a framework for the treatment of prisoners of war in the Second World War.
During that war, what was then called the Central Prisoners of War Agency acted as an intermediary between belligerents, forwarding correspondence, messages, photos and objects from soldiers killed in action or who had died in captivity. It built an index of more than 36 million cards, of which more than 30 million concerned prisoners of war. It also passed on some 120 million messages between prisoners of war and their families. This work continues through the Central Tracing Agency, which today uses virtual and digital technologies to help prisoners stay in contact with their families.
After the Second World War, States came together to revise the 1929 Convention and to address issues that had arisen in practice. Rules on the transfer of prisoners between States, on the use of weapons against prisoners and on the supervisory role of the ICRC were added to complement the previous convention.
Since 1949, the Third Convention has proven its continued relevance in several international armed conflicts. It has provided a right for the ICRC to visit prisoners of war and to work towards their humane and dignified treatment in accordance with the Convention’s rules.
Back to top
Updating the Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention
Applying the same methodology as for the 2016 and 2017 Commentaries on the First and Second Geneva Conventions, the drafting of the Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention followed a rigorous editorial process, consolidating the knowledge of leading international humanitarian law experts from all over the world. In addition to benefiting from the contributions of ICRC staff intimately familiar with the relevant aspects of our work, the updated Commentary was opened to input from a global network of practitioners and scholars. Importantly, this included over 50 peer reviewers with expertise in both the law applicable to detention and its operational aspects.
The updated Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention is another milestone in the ICRC’s longstanding work to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict. Through this endeavour, the ICRC continues to fulfil its role as guardian and promoter of international humanitarian law. The work of the ICRC combines the perspectives of law and operations. This puts it in a unique position to oversee the updating of the Commentaries.
This Commentary equips practitioners and scholars with a new tool in the continuing effort to alleviate human suffering during armed conflicts. It provides guidance on and contextualization of the Convention’s rules. It presents the ICRC’s interpretation of the law but also indicates the main diverging views and issues requiring further discussion and clarification. The ICRC will duly take its contents into account in its daily work, while being aware that practice and interpretations may evolve over time.
On behalf of the ICRC, I express my sincere gratitude to the experts who gave freely of their time and expertise, in particular the external contributors and peer reviewers. It also thanks the members of the Editorial Committee, the project team and other staff members who brought the updated Commentary to fruition.
In presenting it to the States party to the Geneva Conventions, to National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other humanitarian organizations, to judges and scholars and to other interested parties, the ICRC sincerely hopes that this Commentary, along with the ones already published and the others to come in the years ahead, will clarify the meaning and significance of the Geneva Conventions and help to ensure greater protection for war victims.