Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 1960 


Although the reference was rather brief, Article 14 of the Hague Regulations contained a provision calling for the institution of enquiry offices by the belligerent States and neutral countries. The main task of these offices, which proved most valuable during the First World War, was to answer enquiries addressed to them and, for this purpose, to receive all information concerning prisoners of war (internment, transfer, release on parole, exchange, escape, admission to [p.574] hospital, death). An individual card had to be established for each prisoner of war, containing detailed information, and had to be transmitted to the prisoner's Power of origin once peace had been reestablished. The Article also specified that all objects of personal use, valuables, etc. must be collected and forwarded to those concerned.
This provision proved valuable during the First World War; it was redrafted in 1929 and at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference additional details were inserted in it, pertaining mainly to the duties of the Information Bureaux, the recruitment of staff and the identity particulars which they are required to furnish.


At the Preliminary Conference of National Red Cross Societies, held at Geneva in 1946, the majority of the participants recommended that the Societies should undertake the work defined in the present paragraph. The Conference of Government Experts, however, did not think it advisable to make any stipulation in this regard and preferred to leave the Governments free to select an organization to be responsible for establishing Information Bureaux (1).
Neutral Powers which have interned nationals of one of the belligerent States in their territory are also required to establish Information Bureaux.
The Detaining Power may employ prisoners of war in its Information Bureau, provided it respects the conditions laid down in the Convention regarding work by prisoners of war (Articles 49 -57); this practice has been followed in the past and proved most satisfactory and of great assistance to the belligerents. Prisoners of war so employed must be repatriated in the same way as other prisoners at the end of the hostilities.


While the Convention specifies that the Bureau must be given information "within the shortest possible period", it leaves the Detaining [p.575] Power free to choose the method by which the information will be transmitted by the military authorities. The same is true in the case of neutral or non-belligerent Powers (2).


This paragraph is almost identical to Article 77, paragraph 3 , of the 1929 Convention, with the additional requirement that the Bureau must use "the most rapid means" for forwarding the relevant information to the Powers concerned.
During the Second World War, information concerning prisoners of war was generally sent by post; in order to remedy certain delays, however, the Central Agency sometimes used the telegraph service. With the idea that this system should be made general and even extended to transmission by radio, the Conference of Government Experts recommended the above amendment (3), and it was adopted by the Diplomatic Conference. Each country must therefore endeavour, according to its own state of technical progress, to enable the Agency to use the most up-to-date methods (radio, microfilms, photostats, etc.). The use of these means can be made easier by granting Information Bureaux total or partial exemption from charges on their telegrams, in addition to exemption from postal charges, pursuant to Article 124 (4).
Lastly, as regards the means by which each national Bureau is to forward information to the Bureau of the adverse party, the present clause merely provides for the same procedure as already existed in the 1929 text and proved completely satisfactory -- namely transmission through the Protecting Power as well as the Central Agency.


1. ' First sentence. -- General definition '

At first sight, this clause might seem to imply if not an obligation, at least a recommendation that the belligerents should advise the next of kin of prisoners of war through the intermediary of the organizations referred to in the preceding paragraph. It is unlikely, however, that the drafters of the Convention can have intended to deal in this way with matters which are solely within the purview of the Power on which prisoners of war depend. Moreover, the second sentence, which lists the particulars to be obtained wherever possible, gives a more accurate indication of the scope of the whole provision. The first sentence should therefore be regarded as a general indication as to the nature of the information which should in the first place be collected and transmitted in order that the next of kin may be informed. It will, however, be noted that this indicates the purpose of the system, which is established primarily in the interest of the next of kin, although also useful to the State: "... shall make it possible quickly to advise the next of kin
concerned" -- this wording constitutes a recommendation that families should be informed, and rapidly so.
It is most desirable that all the particulars listed should be furnished, as the risk of error in recording and transcribing information is considerable because of differences of language, similarity of names (5) and technical inadequacies.

2. ' Second sentence. -- Purpose of the information '

As is emphasized by the reference to Article 17 (6) and the phrase "in so far available to the Information Bureau", the furnishing of this information does Hot depend entirely on the Detaining Power. The latter must, however, endeavour to obtain the particulars listed, with a view to forwarding them.
While the Detaining Power is under an obligation to try to obtain all the particulars listed in the present paragraph, the prisoner is not [p.577] bound to supply them all; in accordance with Article 17 , he must give at least the following information: surname and first names, rank, date of birth and army, regimental, personal or serial number, or failing this, equivalent information (7). In the light of some unfortunate and painful occurrences in the past, it was considered that additional information might constitute a source of danger, as the Detaining Power had sometimes made use of it in order to subject the families of certain prisoners of war to reprisals. Those are exceptional cases, however, and concern only prisoners of war whose country of origin is occupied by the Detaining Power, or who are nationals of the latter. As a general rule, it would be preferable if members of the armed forces were requested and even instructed to give all the particulars referred to in the present Article in case of capture, in order to facilitate the work of the Information Bureaux.
Article 77, paragraph 5 , of the 1929 Convention also mentioned that the prisoner's unit as well as wounds and the date and place of capture, wounds or death should, where appropriate, be recorded. All these particulars were maintained in the present Convention and are referred to in the following paragraphs, with the exception of the unit in which the prisoner served. During the Second World War, some of the belligerents tended to consider that the latter item was of military significance and should therefore not be divulged, despite its very great value for the Central Prisoners of War Agency (8).


Unlike identity particulars, which can be furnished only by the prisoner of war concerned, all the information mentioned in the present paragraph (transfer, release, etc.) is known to the Detaining Power, and there can be no excuse for the latter not transmitting it.
Furthermore, the Detaining Power must ensure that a notification is made in respect of any of the changes listed, and by the most rapid means, in accordance with paragraph 3.
[p.578] This provision replaces paragraph 4 of the 1929 text, which required an up-to-date individual record to be kept for each prisoner of war, containing a reference to internment, release on parole, repatriation, escape, hospital treatment, etc. The Conference of Government Experts considered that the establishment of individual records was a matter to be determined by the Powers concerned (9).


Article 77, paragraph 6 , of the 1929 Convention provided for the transmission of this information. During the last war, however, this was not usually carried out and the Central Agency took to approaching the national Bureaux directly for any information it needed.
At the Conference of Government Experts, however, emphasis was laid on the need for regular information about the state of health of wounded or sick prisoners of war, and this concern was shared by the 1949 Diplomatic Conference. Such information must be transmitted in respect of seriously ill or seriously injured prisoners of war (10). Although it is not very easy to define this phrase exactly, one may assume that it refers at least to all wounded and sick prisoners of war whose life is in danger, for as long as the danger persists.


A satisfactory reply can be given to requests for information only after careful search. The Information Bureau is therefore required, if it does not have the information requested, to "make any enquiries necessary to obtain the information which is asked for".
There is no standard method for making enquiries. Each national service encounters special problems which must be solved according to circumstances. An indication may be given, however, of a few general rules applied by all the sections of the Central Agency during the Second World War.
[p.579] All particulars of the successive stages of an application, the subsequent enquiry and the details obtained are concisely added to the application card (date of application, date of opening the enquiry, its nature, results, date of reply, particulars of the applicant, and of the individual or bodies asked for information). Thus, at any moment it is possible to see at a glance how the enquiry is proceeding, without getting out the records. In addition to keeping application cards up to date, most of the sections enter the positive replies on information cards; this is the rule when the reply gives the notification of a death.
The national sections also keep chronological indexes in order to carry on enquiries more easily and to take the necessary "follow-up" action.
Printed forms, which considerably simplify the handling of applications, should also be used for enquiries and lead to more speedy and accurate results. For such enquiries, the national sections will apply to the most varied sources. Any public or private organization or individual likely to give useful information may be approached -- official Bureaux, institutions, municipal authorities, national Red Cross Societies, delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross prisoners' representatives and camp commanders, chaplains and doctors, prisoners of war, repatriated or shipwrecked prisoners or war, escaped prisoners of war, refugees and so forth.
These enquiries are often of a delicate nature and their success frequently depends on the initiative and perseverance of those responsible (11).
Although a suggestion to the contrary was presented, the Diplomatic Conference did not specify who the applicants should be. Most of the enquiries received by the Information Bureaux will be either from an official organization, and in particular the Central Agency, or from a non-official body. It is clear, however, from the fact that nothing is specified in this respect that the intention was to enable private individuals, wherever they might be, to apply directly to the official Bureaux for information concerning prisoners of war whose fate was of interest to them.


Authentication by a seal or signature is possible only in the case of written communications. In the case of those in other forms -- for [p.580] instance communications by radio or telephone -- it may be possible to establish a code if exceptional circumstances so require.


In this respect, the main task of the Bureau will be to transmit personal effects. The Detaining Power must be careful to take all necessary measures to ensure that the administrative services of its armed forces which deal with prisoners of war collect such articles and forward them to the Information Bureau.
The present text makes several improvements in the 1929 Convention. In the first place, as regards the articles referred to, the term "personal valuables" must be interpreted broadly; thus a wedding ring, though of little intrinsic worth, must nevertheless be collected because of its sentimental value for the next of kin. Another and more important innovation which was proved necessary by experience is that the Information Bureau is required to send such articles in sealed packets, and to attach a full inventory together with particulars of the identity of the prisoner concerned.
It is clear from the last sentence of the paragraph that the obligations of the Bureau in this respect refer mainly to articles and documents which are not voluminous and can be sent in packages exempt from postal charges. The forwarding of other personal effects such as clothing, books, musical instruments, works of art, etc. might involve rather high transport costs. It is therefore stated that such effects will be transmitted "under arrangements agreed upon between the Parties to the conflict concerned"; such arrangements will probably relate to the means of transport and to payment of the expenditure involved (12).
It should be added that the duties of the Information Bureaux referred to in the present paragraph are not limited to prisoners of war, but relate also to those who have fallen in battle (First Convention, Article 16 ), as well as the shipwrecked (Second Convention, Article 19 ) (13).

* (1) [(1) p.574] See ' Report on the Work of the Conference of
Government Experts ', pp. 249-250; see also ' XVIIth
International Conference of the Red Cross, Draft Revised
or New Conventions for the Protection of War Victims ', p.
54: "The expression "fallen in the hands of" ... has a
wider sense and covers also the case of members of forces
falling into the power of the enemy without fighting, for
instance as the result of a surrender";

(2) [(1) p.575] The 1929 Convention (Article 77, paragraph 2)
already required each belligerent Power to inform its
Information Bureau as soon as possible of all captures of
prisoners; unlike the present text, however, it did not
specify what that information should comprise;

(3) [(2) p.575] The 1929 Convention (Article 77, paragraph 2)
already required each belligerent Power to inform its
Information Bureau as soon as possible of all captures of
prisoners; unlike the present text, however, it did not
specify what that information should comprise;

(4) [(3) p.575] See ' Report on the Work of the Conference of
Government Experts ', pp. 251-252. During the Second World
War, the Central Agency received information from the
national Bureaux in the most varied forms. (See ' Report
of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its
activities during the Second World War ', Vol. II, p. 33
ff.). It therefore proposed the adoption of a uniform
identity card, comprising four identical sections, which
would fit into a card-index;
The drafters of the new Convention considered,
however, that the organization of the Information Bureau
was a matter wholly within the competence of each
individual Government; they therefore deleted the
reference in the 1929 text to an individual record for
each prisoner of war. It is nevertheless desirable that
the work of the national Bureaux should be organized on a
standard basis;

(5) [(1) p.576] See ' Report of the International Committee of
the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World
War ', Vol. II, p. 100 ff. During the Second World War,
cases often arose of prisoners of war bearing the same
surname and first name; it was therefore essential to have
additional particulars, the most important being the army

(6) [(2) p.576] Which relates to the questioning of prisoners
of war;

(7) [(1) p.577] It should also be noted that Article 17,
paragraph 3, requires each belligerent Power to furnish
the persons under its jurisdiction who are liable to
become prisoners of war with an identity card showing at
least these five items of information;

(8) [(2) p.577] The Agency adopted a system of enquiries "by
evidence" or "regimental enquiries" which furnished very
good results. See ' Report of the International Committee
of the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World
War ', Vol. II, p. 49 ff.;

(9) [(1) p.578] See ' Report on the Work of the Conference of
Government Experts ', p. 252; ' XVIIth International Red
Cross Conference, Draft Revised or New Conventions for the
Protection of War Victims ', p. 129. No reference will be
made here to the very important question of death
certificates which has already been considered in
connection with Article 120;

(10) [(2) p.578] See ' Report on the Work of the Conference of
Government Experts ', p. 253;

(11) [(1) p.579] See ' Report of the International Committee of
the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World
War ', Vol. II, pp. 45-46;

(12) [(1) p.580] This provision corresponds, in a less explicit
form, to the principle contained in Article 119, paragraph
4, concerning personal effects which repatriated prisoners
of war are obliged to leave behind in a camp because of
limitations on the maximum weight of baggage allowed;

(13) [(2) p.580] See ' Commentary I ', p. 158 ff.;