Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 1987 
Reunion of dispersed families
[p.857] Article 74 -- Reunion of dispersed families

2986 Since the Second World War the reunion of dispersed families has become a major concern of humanitarian organizations. That conflict was actually characterized by the enormous numbers of people who were obliged to leave their normal place of residence by various constraints: capture by the enemy, exodus before the invasion following the destructions of war, evacuation ordered by the national or occupation authorities, mass migration of whole populations, forced labour, voluntary or compulsory evacuations, deportation for political or racial reasons, etc.

2987 The consequences of such removal from people's normal places of residence were further aggravated by the difficulty, and even impossibility, for them to send news from the place to which they had been moved. In this way family ties were abruptly and sometimes permanently broken.

[p.858] 2988 The ICRC endeavoured tu put members of a family who had not heard from one another in contact with each other by collecting information regarding the identity of displaced persons. Before it is possible to reunite members of a family, it is of course necessary to find them and reestablish contact. In this field the existence of a fixed information and collection point is essential. With this idea in mind the ICRC created the Central Tracing Agency, which has now become a permanent organization. (1)

2989 In addition, in 1943 the Allied authorities set up a tracing organization for the purpose of collecting all the documentation on missing persons and dispersed families. In 1947 this organization received the name of International Tracing Service (ITS) and in 1948 it was established in Arolsen (FRG). This organization first depended on the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), then to the International Refugee Organization (IRO), and finally to the Allied High Commission for Germany. In 1955 the Allied authorities entrusted the management and administration of this service to the ICRC under an international agreement and the ICRC still continues to run it today. The ITS has assembled the largest collection world-wide of archives on concentration camps, so that, in particular, it is able to provide information and certificates required by former deportees, foreign labour and displaced persons, as well as by their relatives.

2990 Once the members of a dispersed family have been put into contact, reuniting them has often posed problems, and the ICRC endeavoured to help them to get together in a place of their choice. It is estimated that after the Second World War it contributed to reuniting approximately 700,000 persons with their families.

2991 In this field the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also brought about many reunions of families by facilitating the acceptance of members of a family by a country where one member of that family already was. Obstacles often arose because governments were opposed to their nationals leaving, or refused to allow any more persons to enter their territory, and reunions were often achieved only after long and patient negotiation.

2992 Similar situations have arisen many times since the Second World War. For example, the war in Korea led to large-scale migration of the population, so that numerous families were separated. In the Middle East various conflicts have also led to displacement of populations so that members of a family are often separated. Population movement in Southeast Asia took place on a large scale, and many people have sought refuge, and are still seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. In all these situations, and in other cases, the ICRC has endeavoured to make contact between members of dispersed families by setting up special offices either in Geneva where the Central Tracing Agency is established, or at the seat of ICRC delegations in the countries concerned. Thus important services have been rendered to dispersed families.

2993 In 1949 the Diplomatic Conference agreed to include Article 26 in the fourth Convention. This article is devoted to dispersed families and reads as follows:

"Each Party to the conflict shall facilitate enquiries made by members of families dispersed owing to the war, with the object of renewing contact with [p.859] one another and of meeting, if possible. It shall encourage, in particular, the work of organizations engaged on this task provided they are acceptable to it and conform to its security regulations."

2994 This provision, which is not a very strong obligation, has been of some use and was frequently invoked by organizations devoted to the reunion of dispersed families, particularly by the ICRC.

2995 However, in 1976 the non-governmental organizations concerned with such problems considered that on the occasion of the adoption of the Protocol it would be appropriate to go slightly further by urging governments to facilitate the reunion of families. Thus the ICRC and the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, with the support of the United Nations High Commission or for Refugees, agreed on a text and succeeded in persuading several governments to submit it as a new article numbered 64 bis. This led to amendment CDDH/III/ 329, submitted by 28 governments; Committee III adopted it by consensus without any change, and it was also adopted by consensus in plenary. Thus it has become Article 74 .

2996 The article requires very little explanation, as its text is clear.

2997 Yet the question might arise, what is meant by "family"? In the narrow sense, the family covers persons related by blood and living together as one household. In a wider sense it covers all persons with the same ancestry. In the context of Article 74 it would be wrong to opt for an excessively rigid or precise definition; common sense must prevail. Thus the word "family" here of course covers relatives in a direct line -- whether their relationship is legal or natural -- spouses, brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, but also less closely related relatives, or even unrelated persons, belonging to it because of a shared life or emotional ties (cohabitation, engaged couples etc.). In short, all those who consider themselves and are considered by each other, to be part of a family, and who wish to live together, are deemed to belong to that family.

2998 The main innovation of this article compared with 1949 is the duty imposed on Parties to the conflict and on Contracting Parties to facilitate the reunion of families. This duty is not only imposed on Contracting Parties which are Parties to the conflict, but also on Contracting Parties which are not involved in the conflict. This is quite logical, since it often happens during armed conflict that nationals of a country involved in a conflict seek refuge or are taken to neutral countries.

2999 The second part of the article merely reiterates, with some further details, what was said in 1949: the organizations concerned must act in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and of this Protocol. Reference should be made in particular to Article 81 ' (Activities of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations). ' The last part of the article refers to "their respective security regulations". This clearly refers to security regulations laid down by the Contracting Parties or the Parties to the conflict, and not to security regulations which humanitarian organizations might have been induced to issue. From a grammatical point of view, the possessive pronoun "their" could refer to either, in the English text as well as in the French and Spanish texts, but the intention is quite clear.

' C.P./J.P. '


(1) [(1) p.858] For further details on the Central Tracing Agency, see commentary Art. 78, para. 3, infra, p. 914;