Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 1960 


From the very first days of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant had raised the question of "the moral welfare of prisoners of war".
Morale always exerts a physical effect, but it is more acute in the case of persons who have lost their freedom, because their inner life tends to grow in importance. It has often been noticed that people who paid little or even no attention to their religion reverted to their childhood practices once they became prisoners of war, and found comfort. This phenomenon has been observed not only among Christians, but among the followers of all religious faiths.
By helping prisoners of war to endure the hardship to which they are exposed, religion has beneficial results on their physiological state and thus eases the task of the Detaining Power. The humanitarian spirit, which takes into account the highest aspirations of the individual, is in harmony with the interests of the Powers concerned, and this is why, even before the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment [p.226] of Prisoners of War was drawn up, Article 18 of the 1907 Hague Regulations stated the following principle: "Prisoners of war shall enjoy complete liberty in the exercise of their religion, including attendance at the services of whatever church they may belong to, on the sole condition that they comply with the measures of order and police issued by the military authorities".
The same principle was again proclaimed in similar terms by Article 16 of the 1929 Convention which added that: "Ministers of religion, who are prisoners of war, whatever may be their denomination, shall be allowed freely to minister to their co-religionists".
In the memorandum which it addressed to all the belligerent Powers on July 14, 1943 (1), the International Committee of the Red Cross noted that after a long period of confinement the prisoners and internees increasingly sought spiritual help from religious directors and pointed out that, in order to be able to carry out their task, these men ought to enjoy the facilities generally granted to members of the medical staff in the camps (permission to leave camp regularly, to write more frequently, etc.). The request was well received in most quarters, and when the International Committee undertook to draw up a draft Convention for the protection of civilians, it convened in Geneva, to obtain the benefit of their experience and advice, an expert commission composed of representatives of the various charitable organizations which had co-operated with it in bringing spiritual or intellectual aid to victims of the war.
The commission included representatives of the following organizations: the World Young Women's Christian Association, World Alliance of Young Men's Christian Associations, Caritas Internationalis, World Jewish Congress, World Council of Churches, World's Student Christian Federation, Pax Romana, Catholic Relief, and War Relief of National Catholic Welfare Conference. It helped to prepare a draft text which, after being adopted with certain additions by the XVIIth International Red Cross Conference, held at Stockholm in 1948, was taken as a basis for discussion by the 1949 Diplomatic Conference at Geneva.
At this Conference, the Delegation of the Holy See undertook to redraft the text and submit it "in a clear, systematic and accurate form", as some of the clauses adopted at Stockholm appeared to overlap other provisions of the Convention (2). When submitting his [p.227] amendment -- which was exactly the same in the case of prisoners of war and civilian internees -- the Delegate of the Holy See stated that it represented the views of various religious organizations which had studied the Convention.
Certain clauses of the Stockholm draft were either dropped altogether or inserted in other Articles of the Convention (Article 125, paragraph 1 ). In addition, the text was presented in a new form, divided into four Articles which correspond to Articles 34 to 37 of the present Convention.
The 1929 text, which merely set forth the principle of religious freedom and stated that ministers of religion should be allowed to carry out their duties, was thus considerably enlarged in scope.

1. ' First sentence. -- Freedom of religion '

This provision appeared in almost identical terms in Article 16, paragraph 1 , of the 1929 Convention. It affords to prisoners of war religious freedom covering even the observance of religious creeds which are prohibited for the civilian population of the Detaining Power, and is a specific instance of the application of the principle of equality of treatment without any adverse distinction based on race, nationality, religious belief, etc. (Article 16 ).
In fact, the experience of the Second World War showed that various interpretations could be given to the requirement in Article 16, paragraph 1 , of the 1929 Convention to "comply with the routine and police regulations prescribed by the military authorities" (3).
In applying this principle of freedom, the Detaining Power may have two different kinds of obligation to fulfil. In the first place, it must ensure that no pressure is brought to bear on prisoners of war. A similar principle is set forth in Article 38, paragraph 1 , in connection with intellectual, educational, and recreational pursuits, sports and games, and also in Article 14, paragraph 1 . The provision also implies, however, that the organization and administration of the camp must not be such as to hinder the observance of religious rites. A balance must be found between the prisoners' obligation to comply with the disciplinary routine prescribed by the military authorities and the obligation for the Detaining power to afford complete latitude to prisoners in the exercise of their religious duties. The words "disciplinary [p.228] routine" which have replaced the term "routine and police regulations" used in the 1929 Convention, indicate that the exercise of religious duties, as well as attendance at services, must be compatible with the routine
administration of the camp. The present wording seems more liberal than that of the 1929 text. Respect of the "disciplinary routine" implies that the exercise of religious duties, including attendance at services, is allowed without special authorization as part of the normal system of administration, general timetable and other activities. There is no need to wait for special "routine and police regulations" to be laid down before prisoners may practise their religious faith, whatever it may be. Nevertheless, although the Convention refers to all "religious faiths" without discrimination, reservations should be made concerning the performance of certain rites if such rites obviously conflict with the normal disciplinary routine in a prisoner-of-war camp.
It should also be noted that Article 53, paragraph 2 , stipulates that the Detaining Power must allow prisoners of war a rest of twenty-four consecutive hours every week, preferably on Sunday or the day of rest in their country of origin. This day is often determined by religious rules. One should also refer to Article 120, paragraph 4 , which provides, inter alia, that the detaining authorities must ensure that prisoners of war who have died in captivity are honourably buried, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged.
On the other hand, the religious denomination is not mentioned among the information which prisoners of war are required to give when questioned (Article 17, paragraph 1 ), nor need it be recorded in the identity documents of prisoners of war. Governments are, however, at liberty to include such a reference if they wish, since there is nothing in the Convention to preclude it. It is even necessary to record the religious denomination in order to meet the requirements of Article 120, paragraph 4 , in the case of the death of prisoners of war during captivity (4)

2. ' Second sentence. -- Premises '

This new provision was inserted by the Diplomatic Conference (5). The premises need not be used solely for religious services; it is [p.229] sufficient if any necessary modifications can be made. On the other hand, they must be "adequate", that is to say sufficiently large, clean and so constructed as to provide adequate accommodation for those who attend the services. A hut, a tent or a room in a building may be quite suitable.
One other question which arose during the Second World War concerns the articles necessary for the holding of services. Although the 1929 Convention, like the present text, said nothing on this subject, in principle the detaining authorities supplied the articles required. In addition, relief societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross sent the chaplains of the camps bibles, prayer books, missals and religious publications, and articles required for religious observances. Special interest was paid to prisoners of war from the East. Relief supplies of this kind are expressly mentioned in Article 72, paragraph 1 (6).

* (1) [(1) p.226] See ' Report of the International Committee of
the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World
War ', Vol. I, p. 275;

(2) [(2) p.226] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949 ', Vol. II-A, p. 331. See
also below, p. 230, Note 1;

(3) [(1) p.227] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949 ', Vol. II-A, pp. 262-263;

(4) [(1) p.228] For an example of an identity card including a
reference to the holder's religion, see ' Revue
internationale de la Croix-Rouge, ' September 1953, p.

(5) [(2) p.228] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949 ', vol. II-A, p. 357;

(6) [(1) p.229] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949 ', Vol. II-A, p. 368. See
also ' Report of the International Committee of the Red
Cross on its activities during the Second World War, '
vol. I, p. 276;