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Commentary of 2020 
Article 124 : Exemption from charges of national information bureaux and the Central Tracing Agency
Text of the provision
The national Information Bureaux and the Central Information Agency shall enjoy free postage for mail, likewise all the exemptions provided for in Article 74, and further, so far as possible, exemption from telegraphic charges or, at least, greatly reduced rates.
Reservations or declarations
None
Contents

  • A. Introduction
  • B. Historical background
  • C. Discussion
    A. Introduction
    4864  The purpose of Article 124 is to reduce the financial burden arising from the transmission of information, by mail or other means of communication, that both national information bureaux and the Central Information Agency, also known as Central Prisoner of War Agency and hereinafter referred to as ‘Central Tracing Agency’,[1] have to engage in as part of their functions under Articles 122 and 123 respectively.
    4865  This provision partially overlaps with Article 74, which similarly exempts correspondence and relief shipments to and from prisoners of war from the transportation costs that would otherwise have to be paid. As far as the Central Tracing Agency is concerned, it operationalizes from a specific angle the final sentence of Article 123(2), as well as Article 123(3).
    4866  A range of charges are covered: postal fees; import, customs and other dues; transportation costs; and telegraphic charges.
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    B. Historical background
    4867  Article 16 of the 1899 Hague Regulations provides that ‘[t]he information bureau shall have the privilege of free postage’.[2] This rule is reaffirmed in substantively identical terms in Article 16 of the 1907 Hague Regulations.
    4868  Article 80 of the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War expanded the exemption for national information bureaux to include not only ‘fees on postal matter’ but also ‘all the exemptions prescribed in Article 38’, the precursor of what is today Article 74 of the Third Convention and which included an exemption from ‘all import or other duties’.[3]
    4869  During the Second World War, the then Central Prisoner of War Agency asked the belligerents to extend to it the exemption of postal charges that existed for the national information bureaux, to which they agreed.[4]
    4870  Article 124 is in line with both Article 80 of the 1929 Convention and Second World War practice. It applies the exemption from postal fees and from import, customs and other dues to both the national information bureaux and the Central Tracing Agency. In what was a new addition in 1949, the High Contracting Parties committed themselves, as far as possible, to exempt or at least greatly reduce telegraphic charges for both entities.
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    C. Discussion
    1. Free postage for mail
    4871  The national information bureaux and the Central Tracing Agency ‘shall enjoy free postage for mail’. As indicated by the term ‘shall’, this exemption is obligatory. It does not allow for any exceptions.[5]
    4872  The exemption in Article 124 is limited to ‘mail’. This can be understood to include ‘individual parcels or collective shipments’ in the sense of Article 72(1). Furthermore, as the next prong of the provision (‘all the exemptions provided for in Article 74’) makes clear, Article 74(2) also benefits national information bureaux and the Central Tracing Agency. Thus, both of these entities are exempt from any postal dues, not only for what Article 74(2) calls ‘correspondence’, but also for ‘relief shipments and authorized remittances of money’ sent via such bureaux or the said Agency. Also based on Article 74(2), this exemption applies ‘both in the countries of origin and destination, and in intermediate countries’. For details, see the commentary on Article 74(2), section D, applicable here mutatis mutandis.
    4873  This exemption from postal dues is also reflected in Article 16.2 of the Universal Postal Convention (adopted in October 2016 and last amended in September 2019) and in Article 16-003 of the Regulations to that Convention (adopted in March 2017 and last amended in February 2020).
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    2. All exemptions from Article 74
    4874  The national information bureaux and the Central Tracing Agency ‘shall enjoy … all the exemptions provided for in Article 74’. As indicated by the term ‘shall’, this exemption is obligatory. It does not allow for exceptions.[6]
    4875  In addition to those covered by Article 74(2), ‘[a]ll the exemptions provided for in Article 74’ refer to: (i) import, customs and other dues, addressed in Article 74(1), on all relief shipments sent or received by the national information bureaux and the Central Tracing Agency; and (ii) the ‘cost of transportation’ addressed in Article 74(3) and (4), provided the conditions of application of those paragraphs are met. For details, see the commentary on the respective paragraphs of Article 74.
    4876  The exemption contained in Article 74(1) from import, customs and other dues on all relief shipments for prisoners of war should be interpreted in light of the specific needs of national information bureaux and the Central Tracing Agency. Neither of these receive ‘relief shipments’ as such for themselves or their staff. However, they will need equipment and materials (e.g. for communication purposes) to fulfil their functions. In such cases, it is fitting that they enjoy the same exemptions from import, customs and other dues as the prisoners of war they serve.
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    3. Exemption from telegraphic charges
    4877  With the last part of Article 124, the High Contracting Parties committed themselves to provide, so far as possible, both national information bureaux and the Central Tracing Agency with ‘exemption from telegraphic charges or, at least, greatly reduced rates’. The introduction of this provision was prompted by the importance of telegraphic services in the Second World War, when the telegram ‘had frequently been the only possible means of communication between certain national Bureaux and the Central Prisoners of War Information Agency’.[7] At the time, the cost of telegraphic communications was quite high, placing a heavy financial burden on all the offices involved. While the national information bureaux received their funding directly from the State, the Central Information Agency could only resort to such services ‘on the understanding that these costs would be refunded by the States concerned’.[8]
    4878  After the war, during the lead-up to the 1949 Diplomatic Conference, support emerged for the idea that the national information bureaux and the Central Tracing Agency should enjoy reduced costs for the use of telegraphic services.[9] A total exemption from such charges was, however, considered ‘more difficult to secure in this field, owing to the fact that some cable systems were not under State ownership’.[10] This consideration explains the present formulation: national information bureaux and the Central Information Agency ‘shall enjoy … as far as possible’ exemption from telegraphic charges’, but failing that ‘at least, greatly reduced rates’. Thus, this provision requires all High Contracting Parties to, at a minimum, take steps to reduce telegraph rates to the extent possible. This obligation is indicated by the use of the imperative ‘shall’, which applies throughout the entire article.
    4879  Similar considerations were at play for the formulation of Article 74(5), pertaining to the ‘rates charged for telegrams sent by prisoners of war, or addressed to them’. For both provisions, the reality is that telegrams have fallen into relative disuse globally with a number of countries dispensing with the facilities to send or receive telegrams. For a discussion, see the commentary on Article 74, section G.3, applicable here mutatis mutandis with regard to means of communication used by national information bureaux and the Central Tracing Agency.

    1 - On 1 July 1960, the ICRC changed the name of the Central Prisoner of War Agency to Central Tracing Agency to better reflect the scope of its work, which covers, without distinction, civilian and military victims in all armed conflicts (including occupation), in other situations of violence and vulnerability (including international migration) and in natural and man-made disasters. See the commentary on Article 123, para. 4818.
    2 - Article 16 of the 1899 Hague Regulations further specifies: Letters, money orders, and valuables, as well as postal parcels destined for the prisoners of war or dispatched by them, shall be free of all postal duties both in the countries of origin and destination, as well as in those they pass through. Gifts and relief in kind for prisoners of war shall be admitted free of all duties of entry and others, as well as of payments for carriage by the Government railways.
    3 - The application of Article 80 of the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War did not pose major challenges during the Second World War. See Maurice Bretonnière, L’application de la convention de Genève aux prisonniers français en Allemagne durant la seconde guerre mondiale (typewritten thesis), Paris, 1949, pp. 478–484.
    4 - Report of the Conference of Government Experts of 1947, p. 257; Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC, 1960, p. 590. See also 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. 29 and 63.
    5 - See also Sharon Weill, ‘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, at 1015, which goes further by arguing that ‘States must grant [the national information bureau and the Central Tracing Agency] free postage for mail and provide security for the means of transportation’.
    6 - Similarly, see Universal Postal Union, Convention Manual, International Bureau of the Universal Postal Union, Bern, 2018, p. 27 (Article 16.2 of the Universal Postal Convention) and p. 30 (Article 16-003 of the Regulations to the Universal Postal Convention).
    7 - Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-A, p. 300. See also Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC, 1960, p. 592.
    8 - Report of the Conference of Government Experts of 1947, p. 257. See also Pictet (ed.), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, ICRC, 1960, p. 592.
    9 - Report of the Preliminary Conference of National Societies of 1946, p. 79: ‘The Commission expressed the hope that all telegraphic communications made or received by the Central Prisoner of War Agency would be exempted from any charges.’ See also United States, Army Regulation on Enemy Prisoners, Retained Personnel, Civilian Internees and Other Detainees, 1997, para. 3-4(8)(c).
    10 - Report of the Conference of Government Experts of 1947, p. 257.