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Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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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.
. -- CORRESPONDENCE
PARAGRAPH 1. -- LETTERS AND CARDS
Correspondence is an essential means of maintaining the morale of the prisoners. Thus Article 107 takes into account the results achieved, usually after intervention by the International Committee of the Red Cross, during the Second World War. Several belligerents, indeed, showed themselves ready to facilitate internees' correspondence as much as possible and treated it in practice in almost the same [p.449] way as that of prisoners of war. This paragraph adapts in favour of internees the ideas found in Article 71
of the Third Convention (1).
The right of internees to carry on correspondence is absolute. Restrictions may be imposed on it in certain circumstances, but the right must never be completely suppressed. The Detaining Power, however, retains its right to censor internees' correspondence, as stated expressly in Article 112
. It follows that censorship formalities might possibly delay the forwarding of letters indefinitely if there were too many of them. It is understandable, therefore, that the possibility is considered of limiting the volume of correspondence to take into account military needs and allow for the state of communications and in the interest of the internees themselves.
The mail sent by the internees and that received by them must be considered separately. As was pointed out during the discussions at the Geneva Conference (2), the essential thing is not that the detainees should be able, in theory, to write so many letters and postcards every month, but that such letters or cards should actually reach their destination. The minimum of two letters and four cards per month laid down by the Convention seems to be best suited to the possibilities of rapid censorship. This is the minimum which, after representations by the International Committee of the Red Cross, most of the belligerents had accepted from December 1940 onwards. It remained the same until the end of hostilities. The results of this experience are embodied in the Convention, but it goes without saying that these figures represent only a minimum and that if it can be done without overtaxing the normal capacity of the postal service they can be exceeded. As for the form of letters and cards sent by internees, obviously the models annexed to the
Convention can be modified. In their present form, however, they are, in the experience of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the most suitable for ease of censorship and, as a result, for speedy forwarding of the mail.
As regards the mail received by the internees, a limitation can also be ordered either because of lack of transport or to enable censorship to be carried out, provided that the forwarding of family news [p.450] is not seriously affected thereby. If there are limitations at all, however, they should be ordered by the country of origin, after the Detaining Power has indicated its wishes. Indeed, it would give false hopes to families and put an unnecessary burden on the postal services if letters were allowed to be sent which would be held back before distributed. Obviously, the Detaining Power cannot restrict the rights of correspondence of persons residing outside its territory.
The Convention provides that the letters and cards which the internees are authorized to send and receive should be delivered with "reasonable despatch". The wording makes allowance for the various factors concerned -- i.e., the need for censorship and the wish to speed up correspondence as much as possible. The belligerents will fulfil this obligation best if they use air-mail (3).
One last point to emphasize in this first paragraph is that the retention of internees' correspondence for disciplinary reasons is prohibited. During the First World War the belligerents frequently instituted a temporary ban on correspondence as a disciplinary measure. This punishment, which is of great moral cruelty, was forbidden by the 1929 Convention, (Article 36
), a provision which was not always observed during the Second World War. The 1949 Conventions are therefore categorical in this respect as regards both prisoners of war and civilian internees.
The disciplinary measures which may be applied to internees are listed in Article 119
and the list includes, under paragraph 1 (2) "the discontinuance of privileges granted over and above the treatment provided for by the present Convention". In applying this provision, the Detaining Power might be tempted, as an individual or collective disciplinary measure, to prohibit the sending of a volume of correspondence greater than the minimum provided for in this paragraph. This interpretation, however, cannot be accepted because of the categorical statements of Article 107.
With all the more reason, internees undergoing disciplinary punishment and serving their sentence must not be deprived of all right of correspondence. Indeed, Article 125, paragraph 4
, expressly guarantees them the benefit of Article 107.
According to the letter of the text, the position of internees sentenced by due process of law is different, since Article 76
, which is [p.451] applicable to them (4) mentions, in its last paragraph, only the right to receive at least one relief parcel a month. This is a divergence from the corresponding provision of the Third Convention (Article 108, paragraph 3
), which provides that "prisoners of war sentenced to a penalty depriving them of their liberty .... shall be entitled to receive and despatch correspondence and to receive at least one relief parcel monthly". The authors of the Convention adopted the Stockholm Draft on this point without discussion and the difference may therefore be considered to be due to oversight. All prison systems provide for a right to correspondence. Furthermore, Article 25
, which guarantees the right to exchange family correspondence is general in scope. Finally, by virtue of the principle that the system applied to internees must not be less favourable than that applied to prisoners of war, it must be concluded,
in the spirit of the Convention, that despite this omission internees serving sentence retain the right to correspondence.
PARAGRAPH 2. -- TELEGRAMS
Article 38, paragraph 3
, of the 1929 Convention relative to prisoners of war already provided that "prisoners may, in cases of recognized urgency, be authorized to send a telegram on payment of the usual charges."
The present paragraph reproduces this provision but adds some details. There were in the two World Wars many examples of long separations and enormous distances between members of the same family. In certain cases the rules governing correspondence for internees might well have become illusory if those internees had been forbidden to use the telegraph. However, because of the high cost of telegraphic communications there could be no question of allowing it free of charge and the obligation to pay tee normal charges is a means of preventing abuse of the right to telegraphic communication.
Furthermore, in order to encourage as much as possible the use of the telegraph without overburdening the telegraphic systems or involving excessive cost for the internees, the Diplomatic Conference of 1949 had considered annexing to the Convention specimen telegram forms using code-words (5). It contented itself, however, with adopting a resolution inviting the International Committee of the Red Cross [p.452] to draft a series of specimen messages to be submitted later to governments for their approval (6).
To avoid internees being unable to send telegrams in such circumstances for financial reasons, the Convention provides that the fees shall be paid by them in the currency at their disposal, the responsibility for conversion -- in accordance with the postal conventions in force -- being laid upon the Detaining Power.
PARAGRAPH 3. -- LANGUAGES
This paragraph adapts to the needs of internees the provisions of Article 36, paragraph 3
, of the 1929 Convention.
The use of a language different from the mother tongue may be necessary to facilitate censorship. To understand the need for such a clause, it is enough to recall the difficulties which occurred in the Far East during the Second World War, when the censorship authorities were completely ignorant of the European languages spoken by the prisoners (7). It may also happen that the persons with whom the internees wish to maintain correspondence do not know the internees' own language. In both instances it was necessary to provide for the possibility of corresponding in another language.
However, the use of the internees' mother tongue remains the rule and is in general in the best interests of the internees themselves. It should, moreover, be noted that in no case may the Parties to a conflict impose on internees for their correspondence any language other than their mother tongue.
Notes: (1) [(1) p.449] It will be noted that this provision does not
deal with the important question of exemption from postal
charges. Prisoners of war benefit from post-free mail by
virtue of Article 16 of the Hague Regulations and the
principle is recalled in Article 74 of the 1949 Prisoners
of War Convention. The corresponding article of the Fourth
Convention. Article 110, differs considerably from the
Stockholm Draft on this point. The question is discussed
further in the commentary on Article 110;
(2) [(2) p.449] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949, ' Vol. II-A, p. 334;
(3) [(1) p.450] It should be recalled, in this connection,
that in November 1942 the International Committee of the
Red Cross suggested to the German Government that for the
transport of prisoner-of-war mail it should use an air
line from Stuttgart to Lisbon: the establishment of this
line was immediately followed, as was natural, by the
setting up of a Lisbon-London air service. (See ' Report
of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its
activities during the Second World War, ' Vol. 1. pp.
(4) [(1) p.451] In accordance with the provisions of Article
(5) [(2) p.451] During the Second World War, a system of
telegraphic messages in simplified code-words was
instituted at the suggestion of the Vatican between Italy
and North Africa. See, in this connection, ' Final
Record, ' Vol. II-A, p. 335;
(6) [(1) p.452] See for the discussion, ' Final Record, ' Vol.
II-A, p. 335; and for the text of the Resolution, ' Final
Record, ' Vol. III, p. 175;
(7) [(2) p.452] See ' Report of the International Committee of
the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World
War, ' Vol. I, pp. 452-455;
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