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War & Law
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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.
. -- DISPERSED FAMILIES
A feature of the Second World War was that large numbers of people were forced to leave their homes; some fled before the advancing enemy forces; the destruction caused by the war, especially by bombing, led to mass evacuations; transfers and deportations for political, economic and racial reasons affected in some cases the whole population of a region, in others isolated individuals.
During the war the International Committee of the Red Cross asked the Central Prisoners of War Agency to draw up a standard enquiry card (1), on which people separated from their families through the war could give their new address and the name of members of their family with whom they wished to be reunited. With the assistance of the National Red Cross Societies and the administrative authorities in the countries concerned, the cards were made available [p.196] to the public in post offices, in special centres for the distribution and forwarding of Red Cross "Civilian message forms", and in the premises of branches of National Red Cross Societies and other relief organizations.
In Geneva the Dispersed Families Section, set up in 1943 in the Central Prisoners of War Agency, was made responsible for receiving the cards, classifying them and using them for their purpose by means of the so-called tally method (the concordance of two cards classified alphabetically under the name of the person sought, providing the information required). In 1945 these tasks were taken over by UNRRA (2).
The Central Prisoners of War Agency thus worked to put several million civilians in all parts of the world in touch with their families again (3).
In future Article 26 will provide a basis in international law for this work, which has been carried out on the initiative of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The text was proposed by the International Committee and adopted in 1949 by the Geneva Diplomatic Conference; it lays down that each Party to the conflict is to encourage the searches and activities of organizations specializing in this work. The International Red Cross Societies will clearly be among the first to benefit by those facilities.
1. ' Obligation to facilitate enquiries '
It should be emphasized that in accordance with the usual practice of the International Committee of the Red Cross during the Second World War, Article 26 is concerned only with the re-establishing of family ties and therefore applies solely to members of dispersed families, not to all "displaced persons". The Article is intended to safeguard the family unit, to re-establish contacts between members of a family group.
The Parties to the conflict must not only allow members of dispersed families to make enquiries; they must facilitate such enquiries. The Convention does not go into detail but among the examples which could be quoted are the organization of official information bureaux and centres; notification by postal authorities [p.197] of changes of address and possible places of evacuation: the arranging of broadcasts; the granting of facilities for forwarding requests for information and the replies; and, as a precautionary measure, the provision of identity discs for children under twelve years of age, as provided in Article 24, paragraph 3
, of the Convention; this would be of considerable help in reuniting dispersed families.
It should be noted that the Convention makes express provision for setting up information bureaux, and lays down detailed regulations concerning them. Each belligerent should set up an official Information Bureau to receive and transmit information about protected persons in its hands; the information should mention the measures adopted concerning them and should include any particulars which will enable a protected person to be identified, and his family notified. It must be realized, however, that these information bureaux are only competent to deal with protected persons within the meaning of Article 4
of the Convention, in the first place enemy nationals; they are not responsible for information concerning the belligerent powers' own nationals (4) unless, of course, the Parties to the conflict have decided otherwise.
One measure likely to facilitate this work would be free postage for correspondence dealing with family enquiries. During the Second World War the International Committee of the Red Cross arranged with the Universal Post Union for the standard enquiry cards mentioned above (5) to be carried post free. This was of great assistance to the senders.
2. ' Assistance from humanitarian organizations '
Article 26 requires belligerents to encourage the work of organizations engaged in the task of renewing contact between members of dispersed families and reuniting them.
The assistance given by such organizations within their own country is extremely valuable; it is of the very first importance in the case of enquiries by families whose members are in different belligerent countries, especially when such countries are enemies. Without the help of such organizations international enquiries would usually meet with very great difficulties. The organizations must fulfil a certain number of conditions: they must be acceptable to the Parties to the conflict, and they must comply with the security regulations of the belligerent in whose territory they are working. [p.198] This condition was not mentioned in the draft Article submitted to the XVIIth International Red Cross Conference; it was introduced at Geneva in 1949. Any organization which satisfies these two conditions must, as a rule, be allowed to carry on its work in connection with the reuniting of dispersed families. The National Red Cross Societies and their local branches have a most important role to play; they are mentioned expressly in the previous
Article. Now the exchange of family news, with which Article 26 deals, is often a preliminary to the reunion of the family concerned; National Red Cross Societies, which have given such valuable service in this connection during past wars, are called upon to play a very important part in this work in the future, as they have done in the past.
The same will be true of the Central Information Agency, which the International Committee of the Red Cross may suggest setting up. It may be set up as part of the Central Prisoners of War Agency, whose Dispersed Families Section will have the task of collating in a central card index all information and enquiries received concerning members of dispersed families, the information being put to use by means of the so-called "tally" method. This system proved its value during the Second World War and is worthy of attention. In the same way standard enquiry cards seem a simple and practical means of facilitating the renewal of contact between embers of families. The Convention, rightly, does not go into details of the methods which could be used, since they cannot be set out in advance, but must depend on circumstances, which will vary. The Convention merely states that belligerents are under an obligation to encourage the work of competent organizations, thus showing clearly that it is not merely a matter of tolerating their activities, but above all, of supporting and
actively furthering their efforts, or even, as the English text has it, of encouraging them.
Notes: (1) [(2) p.195] Standard card No. P. 10027;
(2) [(1) p.196] United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation
Administration for Europe;
(3) [(2) p.196] For fuller details of the practical work done
during the Second World War, see R. M. FRICK-CRAMER: ' Au
service des familles dispersées ', Revue internationale de
la Croix-Rouge, 1944, pp. 307 sqq.; and ' Report of the
International Committee of the Red Cross on its activities
during the Second World War ', Vol. II, pp. 308 sqq.;
(4) [(1) p.197] See Articles 136-141;
(5) [(2) p.197] See p. 195;
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