Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 1958 


In the war of 1870, the International Prisoners of War Agency established under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, had already suggested to the belligerents that a "person of trust", appointed by the prisoners themselves, should have the task in each camp of distributing relief supplies. During the First World War, the custom of appointing such persons of trust took definite shape and the Franco-German agreement of March 15, 1918 provided that, in all camps and in work detachments comprising 100 prisoners or more, they could submit to the camp commandant for his approval "welfare committees" to take delivery of and distribute collective relief supplies.
The 1929 Convention codified these results. Article 43 provided for the appointment of representatives to correspond with the International Committee of the Red Cross and other relief societies; their activities as intermediaries between the prisoners and the authorities or charitable institutions were destined to expand enormously.
[p.438] By analogy, in the civilian internment camps during the Second World War internees' representatives played a very important rôle. In many cases they assumed even wider responsibility than did the prisoners' representatives, whose status was defined in the Convention. Their sphere of activities varied from country to country but was almost always quite large. Often they had the powers of a camp leader and were responsible for order, discipline and the application of the regulations. In some countries, civilian internees had appointed several of their comrades to a camp court, which inflicted punishments for breaches of the regulations (attempts to escape, insubordination, games of chance, trafficking in foodstuffs) (1).
This system, however, was not entirely satisfactory. The appointment of camp leaders aroused in some cases such rivalries that disturbances broke out, and sometimes the persons appointed misused their authority. The International Committee of the Red Cross therefore proposed the establishment of councils with several members, on which various tendencies or nationalities among the internees could be represented. Like the experts consulted in 1947 (2), the authors of the Convention supported this suggestion.
The system provided for in the 1949 Conventions takes into account this experience. The provisions are not identical therefore in the case of prisoners of war and civilian internees. While prisoners' representatives are still mentioned (Third Convention, Article 79 ) in the case of prisoners of war, and more detailed explanations have been included in the Article, the system laid down for civilian internees calls only for the corporate action of an Internee Committee whose members are elected by their comrades, but no single one of whom is entitled to exercise dominant authority as a camp leader. This difference between the two systems corresponds to the difference between being a civilian and essentially an individual, and being a prisoner of war still subject to military discipline.


Elections are provided for each place of internment. They will also be held in work detachments, although these are not expressly mentioned in this paragraph. A note to this effect was made by the Rapporteurs (3) and is confirmed by paragraph 3 of Article 104 relative [p.439] to the facilities for correspondence of committee members in work detachments.
Secret ballot is a guarantee of the freedom of elections. The fact that they are held regularly gives the internees the means of checking the work of their delegates, and re-electing them or not in consequence.
If several hundred internees are in the same camp, the elections may be preceded by some sort of electoral campaign, and some help from the Detaining Power will be necessary to make the material arrangements. In any case, such help from the Detaining Power must always be given impartially, any pressure, whatever its source, being contrary to the spirit of the Convention.
Their representative character enables the Internee Committees to act on behalf of the internees in dealings with the Detaining Power and the Protecting Power or with relief organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, without, however, this intervention being essential. As stated, for example, in the commentary on Article 101 , the right of complaint may be exercised either directly or through the Internee Committee.
It should be noted that the Convention does not mention the number of members in the Internee Committees. The spirit of the Convention is that the various trends among the internees should be represented as fairly as possible. The fact that the text does not mention numbers will, however, permit the Detaining Power to fix the number of representatives to be elected as it wishes. It might also refer the matter to the internees themselves. If, in any case, the regulations for the elections appeared to the internees to be too restrictive, they could always take advantage of the right of complaint granted them by the previous Article and approach the Protecting Power (or the International Committee of the Red Cross), in order to fix, by agreement, a larger number of members for the Internee Committee.


The approval of the detaining authorities is necessary if the Internee Committee is to carry out its work. This condition, which is attached to all systems of representation of prisoners of war, is obviously essential for the maintenance of discipline. It does not, however, authorize the Detaining Power to exert pressure on the internees to elect a particular candidate and still less to postpone the elections in so far as the candidates have not been approved. It is obvious, although there is no formal provision to this effect, that the elections must take place as soon as possible. If the results of the [p.440] elections arouse any objections from the Detaining Power, that Power must inform the Protecting Power and give its reasons. This procedure tends, on the one hand, to restrict the arbitrary action on the part of the detaining authorities and, on the other, to allow for new elections in better conditions when the internees have been informed impartially by the Protecting Power of the reasons against the election of those first elected.
The same reasoning is valid for allowing the Detaining Power to remove, during the year, one or more members of the Internee Committee, while restricting as much as possible the arbitrary aspect of such a decision.

Notes: (1) [(1) p.438] See ' Report of the International Committee of
the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World
War, ' Vol. I, p. 601;

(2) [(2) p.438] See ' Report on the Work of the Conference of
Government Experts, ' pp. 197-199;

(3) [(3) p.438] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949, ' Vol. II-A, p. 840;