Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 2020 
Article 71 : Correspondence
Text of the provision*
(1) Prisoners of war shall be allowed to send and receive letters and cards. If the Detaining Power deems it necessary to limit the number of letters and cards sent by each prisoner of war, the said number shall not be less than two letters and four cards monthly, exclusive of the capture cards provided for in Article 70, and conforming as closely as possible to the models annexed to the present Convention. Further limitations may be imposed only if the Protecting Power is satisfied that it would be in the interests of the prisoners of war concerned to do so owing to difficulties of translation caused by the Detaining Power’s inability to find sufficient qualified linguists to carry out the necessary censorship. If limitations must be placed on the correspondence addressed to prisoners of war, they may be ordered only by the Power on which the prisoners depend, possibly at the request of the Detaining Power. Such letters and cards must be conveyed by the most rapid method at the disposal of the Detaining Power; they may not be delayed or retained for disciplinary reasons.
(2) Prisoners of war who have been without news for a long period, or who are unable to receive news from their next of kin or to give them news by the ordinary postal route, as well as those who are at a great distance from their homes, shall be permitted to send telegrams, the fees being charged against the prisoners of war’s accounts with the Detaining Power, or paid in the currency at their disposal. They shall likewise benefit by this measure in cases of urgency.
(3) As a general rule, the correspondence of prisoners of war shall be written in their native language. The Parties to the conflict may allow correspondence in other languages.
(4) Sacks containing prisoner of war mail must be securely sealed and labelled so as clearly to indicate their contents, and must be addressed to offices of destination.
* Paragraph numbers have been added for ease of reference.
Reservations or declarations
None
Contents

A. Introduction
3172  The ability of prisoners of war to correspond with the outside world is of paramount importance. Accordingly, several articles of the Third Convention address this issue.[1]
3173  The Second World War, in particular, demonstrated the importance attached to the correspondence of prisoners of war. Frustration was often expressed at the length of time it took for mail to reach its intended recipients.[2] Accordingly, during the lead-up to the 1949 Diplomatic Conference and at the Conference itself, considerable efforts were devoted to the subject of prisoners’ mail.
3174  Several delegations at the Conference recognized that the right of prisoners of war to correspond was of ‘fundamental importance’.[3] Likewise, several delegations observed that correspondence was often ‘the only thing which could prevent [prisoners of war] from being completely deprived of any possibility of obtaining news of their families and of protecting their private interests’.[4] Shortly after the adoption of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC noted that ‘[e]ven the most favourable living conditions do not compensate, in the eyes of the prisoner, for absence of news or slowness in mail delivery’.[5] The ability of prisoners of war to correspond with the outside world is no less important today than it was in 1949. The experience of armed conflicts since the Second World War has shown that communication with the exterior improves prisoners’ state of mind.[6] Therefore, its importance is continually reiterated[7] and violations condemned.[8]
3175  However, the fact of the armed conflict may mean that the number of letters and cards that prisoners of war are permitted to send and receive must be limited. Other factors, such as necessary censorship by the Detaining Power and the variety of languages in which prisoners of war correspond, may require the number of letters and cards to be limited to ensure that they reach their recipients in a timely manner. These, and other matters relating to correspondence, are the subject of the present article.
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B. Historical background
3176  The importance of prisoners of war being able to correspond with the outside world has long been recognized.[9] The 1899 Hague Regulations, while not explicitly providing a right of correspondence for prisoners of war, contained a provision concerning certain procedures relating to correspondence.[10] During the First World War, bilateral agreements featured detailed provisions relating to the correspondence of prisoners of war.[11]
3177  The 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War contained two provisions of relevance to the subject. Article 36 provided:
Each of the belligerents shall fix periodically the number of letters and postcards which prisoners of war of different categories shall be permitted to send per month, and shall notify that number to the other belligerent. These letters and cards shall be sent by post by the shortest route. They may not be delayed or withheld for disciplinary motives.
Under Article 38, ‘[p]risoners may, in cases of recognized urgency, be authorized to send telegrams on payment of the usual charges’.
3178  During the initial phase of the Second World War, the belligerents tended not to limit the number of letters and cards prisoners of war could exchange with their families. The increase in the number of prisoners of war held by the Parties, however,
led to restrictive regulations, since means of transport and censorship arrangements could not cope with their task. Most of the Powers therefore very strictly limited the number of letters and cards that each PW had the right to send or to receive; other Powers applied similar restrictions for next of kin.[12]
The situation eased shortly afterwards and, by the end of 1940, ‘most of the countries concerned, having no adequate means of control, ceased to place any limits on the number of letters and cards PW might receive, and cut down the monthly outgoing mail to a minimum of two letters and four cards’.[13] The situation remained largely the same until the end of the war.
3179  Various aspects of the correspondence of prisoners of war were considered during the drafting of the 1949 Conventions. These included limiting the amount of correspondence that prisoners of war could send and receive and specifying the situations in which telegrams were to be permitted.
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C. Paragraph 1: Correspondence
3180  Article 71(1) concerns correspondence to and from prisoners of war. It imposes an obligation on the Detaining Power to allow prisoners of war to send and receive letters and cards, addresses possible limits on the number of such letters and cards and regulates how they are to be transmitted.
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1. First sentence: Permission to correspond
3181  Article 71 commences with the words: ‘Prisoners of war shall be allowed to send and receive letters and cards.’ This is an important statement of principle, one that was not included in the 1929 Convention. It recognizes the right of prisoners of war to maintain, to a certain extent, relations with the outside world. It also represents the default position: prisoners of war must be allowed to send and receive correspondence, without discrimination. The only restrictions that may be placed on this right are those that are specifically permitted under the Convention.[14]
3182  The Detaining Power is thus under a general obligation to allow prisoners of war to send and receive letters and cards. This is reflected in the use of the imperative (‘shall’).
3183  Certain other obligations follow from this general obligation. The Detaining Power may not place obstacles in the way of prisoners of war sending and receiving letters and cards (apart from measures explicitly allowed under the Convention, notably censorship provided for in Article 76).[15] Furthermore, the correspondence of prisoners of war must not be misused for propaganda purposes.[16]
3184  Positive obligations also follow from the general obligation. The Detaining Power must enable prisoners of war to write letters and cards.[17] This means, for example, that the Detaining Power is required to provide access to writing materials, such as paper and writing implements. Likewise, arrangements must be made for mail to be sent to and received from prisoners of war who are accommodated in locations outside the camp, such as hospitals.[18] The Detaining Power must also allow ICRC delegates and/or fellow prisoners to assist illiterate or seriously wounded or sick prisoners of war in completing letters or cards, where they are unable to do so themselves, or, exceptionally, the Detaining Power must provide such assistance itself.
3185  Both letters (sheets of paper enclosed in an envelope)[19] and cards (pieces of card designed to be sent without an envelope) may be sent and received. Correspondence can also take the form of a Red Cross message, delivered by the ICRC to the addressee, often with the support of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.[20] In the practice of armed conflicts since the Second World War, prisoners of war have also received photos of their families and paintings done by their children. In some cases, detaining authorities have also authorized photos to be taken of prisoners of war to be forwarded to their families. However, care must be taken that such photographs do not impermissibly undermine the prisoners’ honour and dignity.[21]
3186  Although Article 71 refers to ‘letters and cards’, those terms do not exclude correspondence by other means. To give effect to the purpose of the provision, the Detaining Power should also consider the use of more modern means of communication,[22] such as telephone calls,[23] video calls,[24] recorded messages[25] and email.[26] Indeed, these means of communication have been used during several international armed conflicts since the Second World War to facilitate contacts between prisoners of war and the outside world, sometimes with the assistance of the ICRC.[27] A number of military manuals and domestic laws also provide for the right of prisoners of war to receive family visits.[28]
3187  Where this can be done without compromising security, High Contracting Parties are encouraged to use all the means at their disposal to provide a wide range of communication options that were not available in 1949. For example, voice-recognition or dictation software and audio recordings provide an opportunity for illiterate prisoners or those who cannot write because they are wounded or sick to communicate with their families. The conversion of handwritten letters and messages into electronic images and their subsequent transmission by electronic means can also speed up communication.
3188  In principle, prisoners of war are entitled to send and receive an unlimited number of letters and cards, to or from any destination in the world, without distinction. In practice, however, the Detaining Power may restrict full application of this rule, owing either to transport difficulties or to security considerations. Thus, as will be seen in the second, third and fourth sentences of Article 71(1), limits can be placed on the number of letters and cards that prisoners of war may send and receive. Whatever the case, the Detaining Power may not place a total ban on all correspondence.
3189  The deliberate creation of conditions preventing prisoners of war from sending and receiving correspondence does not in itself constitute a war crime, but it may adversely affect their physical or mental well-being. Thus, depending on the circumstances, a violation of Article 71, combined with other violations, may amount to the grave breach of inhuman treatment.[29]
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2. Second and third sentences: Limitations on correspondence sent by prisoners of war
3190  The second and third sentences of Article 71(1) regulate the limits that can be placed on the number of letters and cards that may be sent by prisoners of war. The fourth sentence regulates the limits that may be placed on the number of letters and cards that prisoners of war may receive.
3191  The number of letters and cards sent by prisoners of war can be limited in two stages. The first limitation may be imposed by the Detaining Power, whereas the second may be imposed only following an assessment by the Protecting Power.
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a. Limitations imposed by the Detaining Power
3192  As the ICRC delegate explained at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference, ‘a clause limiting the amount of correspondence permitted to prisoners had had to be included owing to the fact that the censorship offices were sometimes completely overwhelmed by too great a volume of mail’.[30] Other circumstances, such as transport difficulties, might also require limits to be placed on correspondence. Today, however, such problems may be overcome by modern means of communication (e.g. email).[31]
3193  At the Diplomatic Conference, different views were expressed on how the interests of the prisoners of war in respect of correspondence could best be served. Some delegates took the position that ‘[i]t was better for [a prisoner of war] to be able to send one letter which would be delivered than to write several which would pile up at the censorship centre and perhaps never be delivered at all’.[32] Others expressed the view that ‘the only effective way of safeguarding the interests of the prisoners of war was to fix a definite minimum for their correspondence. If that were not done Detaining Powers could, on one pretext or another (difficulties of forwarding, censorship, etc.), reduce to an excessive extent the volume of prisoners’ correspondence.’[33] Still others opined that ‘there should be a reduction in the amount of correspondence provided for in the first paragraph of the Stockholm text’ and that it was ‘essential, however, that some minimum number of letters and cards be stipulated’.[34] Irrespective of the approach favoured, all delegates viewed the issue through the lens of the interests of prisoners of war.[35]
3194  It was ultimately agreed that, if the Detaining Power deems it necessary to limit the number of letters and cards that prisoners of war may send, this cannot be less than two letters and four cards per month.[36] The threshold to be met is that of necessity. Accordingly, the standard of two letters and four cards is not to be set as the default in the absence of any need for doing so. The necessity in question goes beyond military necessity to include such practical matters as a lack of censors and transport difficulties,[37] which, as mentioned above, might be resolved by means of electronic communication. Where email is permitted by the Detaining Power, and preferred by prisoners owing to its speed, limiting the number of words could arguably be in line with the spirit of Article 71.
3195  As the drafting history of this provision indicates, the limit on the number of letters and cards is intended to benefit prisoners of war. If the volume of mail becomes too great, it might be held up indefinitely, so limiting the number of letters and cards they may send is in the interests of prisoners. Accordingly, individual prisoners may not be punished or threatened with a decrease in their quota.[38] However, as the need to limit correspondence may be related to censorship difficulties, prisoners of war whose correspondence is in one language may be subject to limits, whereas those whose correspondence is in another language may not.
3196  The only limit that may be placed on letters and cards sent under the present article is in relation to their number. The article allows for no other limits, although the need for these may arise for other reasons, notably necessary censorship.[39] Furthermore, the provision is concerned with limits on numbers; a complete ban on the sending of letters and cards is prohibited.[40]
3197  The minimum of two letters and four cards is ‘exclusive of the capture cards provided for in Article 70’. The information contained in capture cards is very summary and concerns the identity and state of health of the prisoner concerned.[41] They must not therefore be considered as part of prisoners’ ordinary correspondence. The reference to ‘capture cards’ in the plural and to Article 70 confirms that all capture cards are excluded from this number, including those relating to a change in a prisoner’s address or state of health, and not solely the initial card sent following capture.
3198  Certain other letters and cards are also excluded from the minimum prescribed of two letters and four cards. Letters and cards sent by retained chaplains to ecclesiastical authorities in the country of detention and to international religious organizations ‘on matters concerning their religious duties’ do not form part of the quota.[42] Nor do requests regarding conditions of detention made by prisoners to the military authorities in whose power they are[43] or complaints regarding conditions of detention made to the Protecting Powers either directly by prisoners or indirectly through the prisoners’ representative.[44] Also not included in the quota are communications of prisoners’ representatives ‘with the detaining authorities, the Protecting Powers, the International Committee of the Red Cross and their delegates, the Mixed Medical Commissions and with the bodies which give assistance to prisoners of war’;[45] communications between prisoners’ representatives of labour detachments and prisoners’ representatives of the main camp;[46] letters and cards between the senior medical officer in each camp and the competent authorities of the camp; and communications between retained chaplains and the competent authorities of the camp.[47]
3199  The second sentence of paragraph 1 also prescribes that when the number of letters and cards is limited, these must conform ‘as closely as possible to the models annexed to the present Convention’.[48] The model card fits approximately 100 words,[49] while the model letter, which folds over to form an envelope, fits approximately 250 words.[50] They are based on the correspondence cards and letters that were used during the Second World War.[51] Being standard in form, the model cards and letters should enable speedy censorship and thus contribute to timely transmission. By adopting the use of model cards and letters, the Diplomatic Conference also moved away from ‘the system of reply-forms, by which the prisoner had to write on a form having a detachable sheet for the reply’.[52] If the detachable sheet was lost, the recipient of the letter could not write back. This approach proved unsatisfactory, given that the sheet for the reply was, indeed, sometimes lost or delayed.
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b. Further limitations imposed by the Detaining Power, upon the satisfaction of the Protecting Power
3200  The third sentence of Article 71(1) concerns ‘further limitations’, i.e. limitations that can be imposed over and above those set out in the second sentence. As limits on the number of letters and cards that prisoners of war may send are imposed to protect the interests of prisoners of war, it is evident that the number prescribed in the second sentence is a minimum, which may be reduced only in case of absolute necessity and for the time that necessity applies. The third sentence sets out the circumstances under which additional limits may be imposed, as well as the entity that may decide on them.
3201  Unlike the original limitation, which falls solely to the Detaining Power to decide upon, the imposition of any further limitations depends on an assessment by the Protecting Power, i.e. ‘only if the Protecting Power is satisfied that it would be in the interests of the prisoners of war concerned to do so owing to difficulties of translation caused by the Detaining Power’s inability to find sufficient qualified linguists to carry out the necessary censorship’. No other difficulties, such as those relating to transport or the postal service, would justify reducing the number of letters and cards below the standard set down in the second sentence.
3202  Today, translation difficulties could be mitigated by new technologies, such as electronic translation and word searches. These have the potential to significantly speed up the censorship process. The specific rights and obligations under the Convention nevertheless remain intact.
3203  The role of the Protecting Power in assessing the need for further limitations raises the question whether, and if so how, this provision may be respected when no Protecting Power or a substitute has been appointed, as has been the case in most international armed conflicts that have occurred since the adoption of the Conventions in 1949.[53] The absence of a Protecting Power or substitute does not allow Parties to a conflict to take it upon themselves to impose further limitations pursuant to this provision. The humanitarian imperative that underlies the rule demands effective scrutiny and supervision, subsequent practice regarding the appointment of Protecting Powers and their substitutes notwithstanding. Accordingly, to be able to impose further limitations, Parties to an international armed conflict should endeavour to appoint either a Protecting Power or a substitute. Failing this, they should ensure that the objective of involving a Protecting Power can still be achieved. To do so, they may invite an impartial humanitarian organization, such as the ICRC, to fulfil the same functions. In practice, both prior to and since 1949, the ICRC, acting on its right of humanitarian initiative as enshrined in Article 9, has assisted States in this respect.[54]
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3. Fourth sentence: Limitations on correspondence addressed to prisoners of war
3204  It is as important for prisoners of war to receive news from the outside world, such as from family and friends, as it is to send news.[55] However, depending on the situation, it may also be necessary to limit the number of letters and cards that are addressed to prisoners.[56] As a general rule, there are no limits on the amount of correspondence prisoners of war may receive. The phrase ‘[i]f limitations must be placed on correspondence’ confirms that such limitations must be based on strict necessity.[57]
3205  Unlike limitations placed on letters and cards sent by prisoners of war, limitations placed on letters and cards sent to prisoners of war may be imposed ‘only by the Power on which the prisoners depend’. This decision must not be taken by the Detaining Power, to ‘eliminate the risk of abuse’.[58]
3206  Although the decision to limit correspondence addressed to prisoners of war rests with the Power on which the prisoners depend, the Detaining Power may suggest a temporary limitation, for example if it lacks qualified linguists to censor correspondence addressed to the prisoners, leading to a significant backlog. Any such request to the Power on which the prisoners depend must be considered in good faith. In that decision, the interests of the prisoners of war concerned are paramount.
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4. Fifth sentence: Forwarding of correspondence and disciplinary sanctions
3207  The fifth sentence of Article 71(1) addresses two issues relating to the transmission of letters and cards sent by or to prisoners of war, namely the method by which they are to be transmitted and a prohibition on delaying or retaining them for disciplinary reasons.
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a. Method of transmission
3208  Prisoners of war are keen to receive news from family and friends and vice versa. Accordingly, it is in the interests of all concerned that letters and cards are transmitted as speedily as possible. The first part of the fifth sentence thus ‘attempts to remedy the difficulties arising from the slowness in forwarding prisoners of war correspondence’.[59] Article 71 provides that letters and cards that are sent to and by prisoners of war ‘must be conveyed by the most rapid method at the disposal of the Detaining Power’.
3209  The strength of the obligation is apparent from the language: ‘must be conveyed’. Likewise, the importance of speedy transmission is evident from the fact that the letters and cards must be transmitted not only in a rapid manner but also by ‘the most rapid method’ available, such as electronically. Indeed, at the Conference of Government Experts in 1947, the ICRC considered it ‘advisable that the Convention should stipulate that mail must be conveyed by the quickest means, without specifying that it should be carried by air, as even this means may be superseded by new technical developments’.[60] It follows from the provision that mail must not be unnecessarily delayed, for example ‘under the pretext of censorship difficulties’.[61]
3210  Although the point is made only in respect of the Detaining Power, the rationale behind the provision suggests that other States, such as transit States and recipient States, should also convey letters and cards using the most rapid method at their disposal.[62]
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b. Prohibition on delaying or retaining letters and cards
3211  Article 71(1) concludes with the provision that letters and cards ‘may not be delayed or retained for disciplinary reasons’. Prisoners of war may be subject to certain disciplinary punishments, as regulated by Article 89. Since that article does not list retention or delay of letters and cards among possible disciplinary measures, their use as such is prohibited.[63] This is the case regardless of the severity of the wrongdoing. The present article thus confirms this interpretation. Similarly, individual or collective limitations on correspondence may not be imposed as a disciplinary measure.[64] Limits on letters and cards are excluded from the list of possible disciplinary measures owing to the importance attached to correspondence for prisoners of war.
3212  The fifth sentence of paragraph 1 confirms that not only retention of but also delays to correspondence are prohibited for disciplinary reasons. The latter include, for example, holding up correspondence or instructing censors to push the correspondence of a prisoner to the back of the queue.
3213  The prohibition applies in respect of letters and cards both sent by and addressed to prisoners of war.
3214  The entitlement of prisoners of war undergoing confinement as a disciplinary punishment to correspond is confirmed in Article 98(5).[65] The correspondence of prisoners of war serving a judicial sentence is regulated by Article 108.[66]
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5. Red Cross messages
3215  In practice, the ICRC, with the cooperation of the relevant authorities, facilitates correspondence between prisoners of war and their families through ‘Red Cross messages’, especially when postal services are not functioning.[67] Red Cross messages contain content that is of a strictly private and familial nature. The ICRC collects these messages directly from prisoners of war or indirectly via the Detaining Power. Following censorship by the Detaining Power, the ICRC transmits the messages directly to the prisoners’ families or indirectly through National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies and/or the national information bureaux. Messages are also delivered electronically, orally in person or by telephone.[68] In respect of messages from families to prisoners of war, the process operates in reverse.
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D. Paragraph 2: Telegrams
3216  Article 71(2) provides that prisoners of war ‘shall be permitted to send telegrams’ in four situations. These are: when they have been ‘without news for a long period’;[69] when they are ‘unable to receive news from their next of kin or to give them news by the ordinary postal route’;[70] when they are ‘at a great distance from their homes’;[71] and ‘in cases of urgency’. The 1929 Convention provided for the use of telegrams only ‘in cases of recognized urgency’.[72] The present provision thus extends the situations in which telegrams are to be permitted. Situations of urgency remain one such case; however, it is difficult to set standards for assessing the degree of urgency. This must be done in good faith and take into account the fact that urgency can vary, for example depending on the prisoner’s age or state of health.
3217  Unlike prisoners of war’s mail, telegrams are not exempt from charges. Article 74(5) provides, simply, that ‘[t]he High Contracting Parties shall endeavour to reduce, so far as possible, the rates charged for telegrams sent by prisoners of war, or addressed to them’. Accordingly, the present article provides that the fees for sending telegrams may be ‘charged against the prisoners of war’s accounts with the Detaining Power, or paid in the currency at their disposal’.[73] The former possibility was introduced as a ‘practical method of defraying the charges in question’,[74] while the latter option was introduced ‘to stress the fact that if prisoners have only token money at their disposal, this money must be accepted in payment of cable charges’.[75] Alternatively, despite not being mentioned in Article 71, other entities such as National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies may be willing to bear the costs of sending telegrams.[76] In addition, the 1949 Diplomatic Conference adopted a resolution ‘to reduce the cost, often prohibitive, of such telegrams’ through ‘some method of grouping messages … whereby a series of short specimen messages concerning personal health … etc., could be drawn up’.[77]
3218  Telegrams tend no longer to be used in the situations set out in Article 71 and have fallen into relative disuse globally, with a number of countries dispensing with the facilities to send or receive telegrams.[78] Nevertheless, the purpose behind this provision, i.e. to enable prisoners of war to correspond with the outside world in the situations covered by this paragraph, needs to be kept in mind. In such situations, more modern means of communication such as email, telephone or video calls must be used where possible. These means continue to evolve, and the Detaining Power should interpret this provision in good faith and in light of its purpose.[79]
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E. Paragraph 3: Languages
3219  The provision in Article 71(3) is the same as that in Article 36, paragraph 3, of the 1929 Convention. If the right to correspond, as recognized by the present article, is not to be completely illusory, prisoners of war and their correspondents must be permitted to use a language familiar to them. Accordingly, the present provision obliges the Detaining Power to allow prisoners of war to write their correspondence ‘in their native language’. This follows from the imperative tense used in the first sentence of paragraph 3 – ‘[a]s a general rule, the correspondence of prisoners of war shall be written in their native language’ (emphasis added) – coupled with the second sentence, which allows for the possibility that they may write in other languages. The phrase ‘[a]s a general rule’ at the beginning of the first sentence must be read together with the second sentence; it does not follow from that phrase that the Detaining Power has the discretion to require prisoners of war to write in a language other than their native tongue.[80]
3220  The correspondence of prisoners of war will thus usually be in their native language, but they may have occasion to correspond with persons who are not familiar with that language. In that case, they may use another language, providing the Parties to the conflict so permit. Permission may be granted at the request of the prisoners of war concerned or the prisoners’ representative,[81] or at the initiative of the Parties themselves. However, there is no obligation to allow prisoners of war this possibility. If the possibility is extended to prisoners of war, it must be in addition to writing in the native language, and not instead of it.
3221  Account must also be taken of the security of the Detaining Power and of the work involved in the censorship provided for in Article 76. During the Second World War, difficulties arose particularly in the case of correspondence of prisoners of war in East Asia.[82] In some international armed conflicts since the Second World War, issues have also arisen regarding the language prisoners of war have used in their correspondence and the consequent difficulties detaining authorities have had in carrying out the necessary censorship. Accordingly, the Detaining Power has a legitimate interest in the language in which prisoners of war correspond. Should the Detaining Power not have a sufficient number of qualified linguists, censorship might be delayed and the correspondence not transmitted to the recipients in a timely manner.[83] The Detaining Power can thus request that prisoners of war use or not use a particular language for their correspondence on the ground that no translator is available, but it cannot oblige them to use any language other than their native tongue. The legitimate interest of the Detaining Power in this regard is taken into account in Article 71(1), which allows for the number of letters and cards to be reduced, if necessary. The use of current and emerging technology, such as electronic translation, may mitigate some of the language issues and enable speedier processing.
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F. Paragraph 4: Sacks of mail
3222  Article 71(4) concerns ‘[s]acks containing prisoner of war mail’. These are required to be ‘securely sealed and labelled’ and ‘addressed to offices of destination’. This was an innovation in the Third Convention; the 1929 Convention contained no such provision. The idea behind the clause was to facilitate speedy passage of the mail and thus timely delivery to the intended recipients. As the Swiss delegate noted during the 1949 Diplomatic Conference, the provision was likely to speed up the forwarding of the mail of prisoners of war for two reasons: ‘if the bags were sealed, they would not be subject to censorship in transit countries; again, if they were labelled, such countries would probably hasten their despatch, as they would then know that the bags contained prisoner of war mail’.[84] Thus, despite the debate at the Diplomatic Conference on the advisability of including the provision,[85] the text was retained in the imperative form in which it stands. Article 76 limits the entitlement to censor correspondence to receiving States and despatching States.[86] This, too, facilitates its timely transmission.
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Select bibliography
Bretonnière, Maurice, L’application de la Convention de Genève aux prisonniers français en Allemagne durant la seconde guerre mondiale (typewritten thesis), Paris, 1949.
Dubois, Olivier, Marshall, Katharine and Sparkes McNamara, Siobhan, ‘New technologies and new policies: the ICRC’s evolving approach to working with separated families’, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 94, No. 888, Winter 2012, pp. 1455–1479.
Henckaerts, Jean-Marie and Doswald-Beck, Louise, Customary International Humanitarian Law, Volume I: Rules, ICRC/Cambridge University Press, 2005, https://www.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul.
Sandra Krähenmann, ‘Protection of Prisoners in Armed Conflict’, in Dieter Fleck (ed.), The Handbook of International Humanitarian Law, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 359–411.
Levie, Howard S., ‘Prisoners of War in International Armed Conflict’, International Law Studies, U.S. Naval War College, Vol. 59, 1978, pp. 146–153.
Maia, Catherine, Kolb, Robert and Scalia, Damien, La Protection des Prisonniers de Guerre en Droit International Humanitaire, Bruylant, Brussels, 2015, pp. 359–370.
N. L., ‘Correspondance des prisonniers de guerre’, Revue international de la Croix-Rouge, Vol. 26, No. 302, February 1944, pp. 131–138.
Pilloud, Claude, ‘Les Conventions de Genève et les communications télégraphiques’, Revue international de la Croix-Rouge, Vol. 41, No. 481, January 1959, pp. 9–19.
Rosas, Allan, The Legal Status of Prisoners of War: A Study in International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts, Institute for Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University, Turku/Åbo, 1976, reprinted 2005.
Weill, Sharon, ‘Relations with the Outside World’, in Andrew Clapham, Paola Gaeta and Marco Sassòli (eds), The 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 1013–1024.

1 - See, in particular, Articles 48, 69, 70, 71, 74–78, 98, 108 and 119.
2 - See Report of the Preliminary Conference of National Societies of 1946, p. 80.
3 - Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 334.
4 - Ibid.
5 - ICRC, The Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949: Analysis for the Use of National Red Cross Societies, Vol. II, ICRC, Geneva, 1950, p. 27.
6 - See e.g. UN Security Council, Report of the mission dispatched by the Secretary-General on the situation of prisoners of war in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq, August 1988, UN Doc. S/20147, 24 August 1988, para. 45.
7 - See e.g. Levie, p. 145, who notes that ‘[t]he privilege of communicating with, and receiving communications from, his family is probably the greatest single factor in the maintenance of prisoner-of-war morale’; François Bugnion, The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Protection of War Victims, ICRC/Macmillan, Oxford, 2003, pp. 555–556, who notes that ‘[o]nce the shock of capture is over, what a prisoner of war wants most of all is to send a message home’; and Jelena Pejic, ‘Procedural principles and safeguards for internment/administrative detention in armed conflict and other situations of violence’, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 87, No. 858, June 2005, pp. 375–391, who notes, at 389, that ‘[t]he preservation of family life and contacts is one of the basic aims of international humanitarian law and may be said to constitute an element of the broader obligation that persons deprived of their liberty in both international and non-international armed conflicts must be treated humanely’. See also Rosas, pp. 452–453.
8 - See e.g. United States, Department of Defense, Final Report to Congress on the Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, April 1992, p. 619.
9 - For example, during the International Conference in Geneva in 1863, it was remarked that ‘la correspondance, c’est la consolation du prisonnier, c’est son courage et sa résignation, c’est ce qui le réconcilie avec l’exil et lui fait apprécier, sans préjugés hostiles, le pays où le sort l’a jeté’ (‘correspondence is what comforts the prisoner, it gives him courage and fortitude, helps him come to terms with his exile and makes him appreciate, without animosity, the country where fate has landed him’); Compte rendu de la Conférence internationale réunie à Genève pour étudier les moyens de pourvoir à l’insuffisance du service sanitaire dans les armées en campagne, Société genevoise d’utilité publique, Extrait du Bulletin, No. 24, Geneva,1863, p. 28.
10 - Hague Regulations (1899), Article 16.
11 - Agreement between the British and German Governments concerning Combatant Prisoners of War and Civilians (1918), Article XXXVII; Agreement between the United States of America and Germany concerning Prisoners of War, Sanitary Personnel and Civilians (1918), Articles 103, 105 and 106.
12 - Report of the Conference of Government Experts of 1947, pp. 182–183.
13 - Ibid.
14 - See also Customary International Humanitarian Law (2005), Rule 125 (‘Persons deprived of their liberty must be allowed to correspond with their families, subject to reasonable conditions relating to frequency and the need for censorship by the authorities.’), and UN Security Council, Res. 2474, 11 June 2019, para. 5.
15 - See also Tallinn Manual 2.0 on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations (2017), Rule 136.
16 - See Krähenmann, p. 400, para. 724.2, and Levie, p. 153.
17 - 20th International Conference of the Red Cross, Vienna, 1965, Res. XXIV, provided that ‘the international community has consistently demanded … the facilitation of communication between prisoners of war and the exterior’.
18 - This is reflected in State practice. See e.g. Canada, Prisoner of War Handling Manual, 2004, Annex F, para. 3f13.6: PW camp staff are to make arrangements for mail received for PW in hospital to be delivered to the hospital without undue delay. They are also to ensure that a supply of special stationery is delivered to the hospital to enable PW patients to write their quota of cards and letters. The hospital is to make arrangements for the outgoing mail to be taken to the PW camp for processing with the rest of the PW mail. See also United Kingdom, Joint Doctrine Captured Persons, 2015, p. 10-34, para. 1064.
19 - The fact that a letter is enclosed in an envelope does not prevent it from being censored. The issue of censorship of correspondence is addressed in Article 76.
20 - On Red Cross messages, see section C.5.
21 - See the commentary on Article 13, section D.4.b.
22 - On the use of modern means of communication in armed conflicts, see Maia/Kolb/Scalia, p. 365, and Weill, p. 1022.
23 - In the past, the ICRC has also suggested telephone calls as an option; see ICRC, The Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949: Analysis for the Use of National Red Cross Societies, Vol. II, ICRC, Geneva, 1950, p. 28. Some States have used them in practice: see e.g. United States, Law of War Manual, 2016, p. 523, para. 8.10.3.
24 - For examples, see ICRC, ‘Yemen: Alleviating the suffering of detainees’, Interview, 31 July 2013, and Maia/Kolb/Scalia, p. 365, fn. 863.
25 - During the 1980–1988 Iraq-Iran war, prisoners were allowed to convey messages to their families through television, radio and newspapers; UN Security Council, Prisoners of war in Iran and Iraq: The report of a mission dispatched by the Secretary-General, January 1985, UN Doc. S/16962, 22 February 1985, para. 196. For another example, see Maia/Kolb/Scalia, p. 365, fn. 864.
26 - See e.g. New Zealand, Military Manual, 2019, Vol. 4, p. 12-55, para. 12.10.67 (‘The commander of a [New Zealand Defence Force] place of detention is to allow, where feasible, for messages to be sent by email, facsimile or other electronic media.’); United Kingdom, Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict, 2004, p. 167, para. 8.62.1 (‘The term “correspondence” is sufficiently wide to cover more modern means of communication such as fax or e-mail.’); and United States, Law of War Manual, 2016, p. 592, para. 9.20.2.3 (‘More modern means of communication, such as email, should be considered for POW correspondence, as appropriate.’).
27 - ICRC, ‘Georgia/Russian Federation: ICRC moves closer to gaining access to South Ossetia’, Operational update, 19 August 2008; ICRC, Annual Report 2017, ICRC, Geneva, p. 172.
28 - See e.g. Denmark, Military Manual, 2016, p. 523, para. 11.1; Japan, Act on the Treatment of Prisoners of War and Other Detainees in Armed Attack Situations, 2004, Article 81; New Zealand, Military Manual, 2019, Vol. 4, p. 12-54, para. 12.10.65(a); United Kingdom, Joint Doctrine Captured Persons, 2015, p. 6-21, para. 640; and United States, Law of War Manual, 2016, p. 523, para. 8.10.3. On the willingness of a State to facilitate family visits for prisoners of war in one international armed conflict, see UN Security Council, Prisoners of War in Iran and Iraq: The report of a mission dispatched by the Secretary-General, January 1985, UN Doc. S/16962, 22 February 1985, paras 54(f) and 168.
29 - For more details on this grave breach, see the commentary on Article 130, section D.3.
30 - Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 284.
31 - See also para. 3186 of this commentary.
32 - Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 284 (United Kingdom). The UK delegate repeated the position at a later meeting, arguing that ‘it was arbitrary to set a minimum amount of correspondence, and that it defeated the desired object’; ibid. pp. 458–459. See also, expressing agreement with the UK view, India’s statement: ‘In the case of Indian troops, difficulties of censorship and translation had caused great numbers of letters to be delayed and lost, both in Germany and in the Far East’; ibid.
33 - Ibid. (Belgium). Belgium also maintained its position at a later meeting, where the delegate noted that ‘[f]or a prisoner of war the right to correspond was of the greatest importance’ and that ‘[i]t was for the Detaining Power to adapt its censorship services to existing requirements, so that the minimum amount of correspondence mentioned in the Convention was respected’. This view was shared by the delegates of the United States, Italy and the Netherlands; ibid. p. 459.
34 - Ibid. pp. 284–285 (New Zealand).
35 - Ibid. p. 334. See also pp. 284–285.
36 - The ICRC suggested a minimum of two letters and four cards per month at the 1947 Conference of Government Experts. The proposed minimum was subject to a lengthy debate and opinions were divided on the number of letters that prisoners of war were entitled to send. See Report of the Conference of Government Experts of 1947, pp. 182–183. According to Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC, 1960, p. 345, fn. 1, this minimum was adopted by the belligerents during the Second World War. It also reflects the number of letters and cards permitted to be sent in the 1918 Agreement between the United States of America and Germany concerning Prisoners of War, Sanitary Personnel and Civilians.
37 - See also Weill, p. 1022.
38 - See also section C.4.b.
39 - On the issue of censorship, see Article 76. See also Henckaerts/Doswald-Beck, commentary on Rule 125, p. 445, which notes that ‘[c]orrespondence is to be of a strictly personal nature, i.e. not connected with political or military issues in any way’.
40 - See also Article 76(3).
41 - For more detail, see the commentary on Article 70, paras 3148–3154.
42 - Article 35. See also Article 33(2)(b), which affords retained medical and religious personnel ‘all necessary facilities for correspondence’; see the commentary on Article 33, para. 2350.
43 - Article 78.
44 - Ibid.
45 - Article 81(4).
46 - Ibid.
47 - See Article 33(2)(b).
48 - See Third Convention, Annex IV.C.1 and C.2. Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC, 1960, p. 346, seems to suggest that the use of the cards is recommendatory. However, the language of the article indicates that it is a requirement. See also Levie, p. 150, fn. 193.
49 - ICRC, The Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949: Analysis for the Use of National Red Cross Societies, Vol. II, ICRC, Geneva, 1950, p. 29.
50 - Third Convention, Annex IV.C.2.
51 - ICRC, The Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949: Analysis for the Use of National Red Cross Societies, Vol. II, ICRC, Geneva, 1950, p. 29.
52 - Ibid. p. 30.
53 - See the commentary on Article 8, section H. For a general discussion of the functions of Protecting Powers in the Third Convention, see Introduction, section A.3.e.
54 - See Introduction, section A.3.e, in particular paras 50–51, and the commentary on Article 9, para. 1316. See also François Bugnion, The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Protection of War Victims, ICRC/Macmillan, Oxford, 2003, p. 871.
55 - See also Bretonnière, p. 228.
56 - During the 1949 Diplomatic Conference, the motivation for the ‘innovation’ concerning limitations placed on correspondence addressed to prisoners of war was explained as being ‘in order to expedite censorship’; Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 569.
57 - See e.g. Canada, Prisoner of War Handling Manual, 2004, Annex F, para. 3f13.4: ‘There are no limitations on the amount of correspondence which a PW may receive. PW will be allowed to receive all letters and cards, which are addressed to them, unless they have been withheld due to censorship and security concerns.’ See also N. L., p. 133.
58 - Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 569.
59 - Ibid. p. 568.
60 - Report of the Conference of Government Experts of 1947, p. 183.
61 - Canada, Prisoner of War Handling Manual, 2004, Annex F, para. 3f13.4. See also United States, Army Regulation on Enemy Prisoners, Retained Personnel, Civilian Internees and Other Detainees, 1997, p. 8. para. 3-5(f): ‘Letters and cards will be forwarded without undue delay.’
62 - ICRC, The Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949: Analysis for the Use of National Red Cross Societies, Vol. II, ICRC, Geneva, 1950, p. 31, frames the matter in stronger terms, suggesting that ‘it may reasonably be presumed that the rule applies also for transit countries and for the country of destination’ (emphasis added).
63 - See also Krähenmann, p. 400, para. 729.2.
64 - On the prohibition of collective punishments, see Article 87(3).
65 - Article 98(5) provides that prisoners of war awarded disciplinary punishment ‘shall have permission to read and write, likewise to send and receive letters’. Although only letters are mentioned in this clause, a prisoner awarded a disciplinary sentence remains entitled to all the benefits of the Third Convention, as far as is compatible with confinement. Their correspondence must therefore not be restricted more than that of other prisoners, either in quantity or in form (letter, card, telegram). For further details, see the commentary on Article 98, section G.
66 - See the commentary on Article 108, section E.2.a.
67 - On Red Cross messages, see Dubois/Marshall/Sparkes McNamara, pp. 1458–1462. Henckaerts/Doswald-Beck, commentary on Rule 125, pp. 446–447, notes that: [A]fter the conflict of December 1971 between India and Pakistan, the ICRC facilitated the exchange of 15 million messages between prisoners of war and their families. More recently, during the Gulf War in 1991, the ICRC recorded 683 Red Cross messages sent by detainees and 12,738 received by them. From 1998 to 2002, during the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, detainees sent 64,620 Red Cross messages and received 55,025, including those sent after the Peace Agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia of 12 December 2000.
68 - See the ICRC’s Restoring Family Links website, https://familylinks.icrc.org/en/Pages/home.aspx.
69 - During the Second World War, 20 States, including Germany and Italy, agreed to the use of express messages by prisoners of war and civilian internees who had been without news for three months; ICRC, Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its Activities during the Second World War (September 1, 1939–June 30, 1947), Volume II: The Central Agency for Prisoners of War, ICRC, Geneva, May 1948, p. 62.
70 - For example, in the case of prisoners held by a Power that is surrounded by enemy countries.
71 - ICRC, The Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949: Analysis for the Use of National Red Cross Societies, Vol. II, ICRC, Geneva, 1950, p. 32, gives the example of British prisoners in Japan during the Second World War. The English text of this provision, which refers to prisoners of war who are at a great distance ‘from their homes’, is less favourable than the French, which uses the phrase ‘à une grande distance “des leurs”’ (‘at a great distance from their “loved ones”’).
72 - Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War (1929), Article 38(3). During the Second World War, the provision received only limited application. The ICRC nevertheless made unremitting efforts in East Asia, in liaison with the Japanese Government, to enable prisoners of war to exchange telegrams with their families; the result was fairly satisfactory, and the Central Tracing Agency received 61,000 telegraphic messages from relatives and sent them on to the Japanese information bureau; see ICRC, Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its Activities during the Second World War (September 1, 1939–June 30, 1947), Volume II: The Central Agency for Prisoners of War, ICRC, Geneva, May 1948, pp. 61–62. During the First World War, the use of the telegraph was generally forbidden for security reasons; see Franz Scheidl, Die Kriegsgefangenschaft von den ältesten Zeiten bis zur Gegenwart, Ebering, Berlin, 1943, pp. 415–416.
73 - On the financial resources of prisoners of war, including prisoner-of-war accounts, see Part III, Section IV.
74 - Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 334.
75 - Draft Conventions submitted to the 1948 Stockholm Conference, p. 94.
76 - During the Second World War, some National Societies bore the cost of sending telegrams; see ICRC, The Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949: Analysis for the Use of National Red Cross Societies, Vol. II, ICRC, Geneva, 1950, p. 34.
77 - Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. I, Res. 9, p. 362. A proposal to have an annex to the Convention in this respect was not adopted; see Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 335, and Vol. II-B, pp. 513–514. For the full text of the resolution, see the commentary on Article 74, fn. 36.
78 - References to the use of telegrams can be found, however, in some domestic legislation. See e.g. Japan, Act on the Treatment of Prisoners of War and Other Detainees in Armed Attack Situations, 2004, Article 87(3).
79 - See para. 3186 of this commentary.
80 - See also Levie, p. 149, who notes that the provision ‘was undoubtedly included for the protection of the prisoners of war, as a ban on any attempt to compel them to correspond in a language other than their own’.
81 - On the latter, see Articles 79–81.
82 - See Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 284. See also Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its Activities during the Second World War (September 1, 1939–June 30, 1947), Volume I: General Activities, ICRC, Geneva, May 1948, pp. 452–454.
83 - Linguistic differences and the associated difficulties of censorship have been described as ‘one of the major problems with respect to prisoner-of-war correspondence’; Levie, p. 150. It remains true at the time of writing of this Commentary.
84 - Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol II-A, p. 334.
85 - The UK delegate proposed omitting the paragraph ‘on the ground that the provision in question was calculated to complicate and delay the forwarding of prisoner of war mail’; ibid. pp. 334–335. Other delegates considered that the provision addressed technical matters, which were better addressed in the postal conventions; ibid. pp. 284–285. The delegate of the Universal Postal Union noted that, during the Second World War, ‘not only sacks, but whole wagon-loads of prisoner of war mail had passed through Switzerland in transit … without it having been necessary to label and seal each sack. The question was one which would have to be settled by the postal authorities in each country.’
86 - See the commentary on Article 76, section C.2.a.