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Commentary - Art. 136. Part III : Status and treatment of protected persons #Section V : Information bureaux and central agency
    ARTICLE 136. -- NATIONAL BUREAUX


    GENERAL REMARKS

    Inquiry offices for prisoners of war were instituted under Article 14 of the Hague Regulations of 1907, and the idea was developed further in 1929 when the matter was dealt with again in the Prisoners of War Convention. The task of these Information Bureaux, as they are now called, is to bring together all information on prisoners detained in the country and to reply to requests concerning them.
    At the beginning of the Second World War, and after the International Committee of the Red Cross had persuaded the belligerents to apply to civilian internees the rules relative to prisoners of war, these Bureaux, or in some countries Bureaux established for the purpose, received in addition and transmitted to the Central Agency in Geneva information concerning civilians interned by the authorities in their country. This practice, which from the humanitarian point of view rendered services of incalculable value, is now given a written basis in the Convention.
    [p.523] In the Third Convention all the provisions dealing with national Bureaux for prisoners of war are contained in a single Article, Article 122 , which is very long, containing no fewer than nine paragraphs. Committee III of the Diplomatic Conference, in giving final shape to the provisions regarding civilians, chose a different method. Mainly for the sake of clarity it decided to divide the draft under discussion, which was similar to the text relating to prisoners of war, into four separate Articles, which have become Articles 136 to 139.

    PARAGRAPH 1. -- ESTABLISHMENT OF THE BUREAUX

    This paragraph lays down a general rule. It does not state in detail the nature, composition and working methods of the Bureau, all these matters being left to the free decision of each Party, nor does it state what authority will be responsible for establishing and conducting the Bureau. In 1946, the National Red Cross Societies expressed the wish to have this duty assigned to them. The Conference preferred to leave matters indefinite and allow the Governments complete freedom in this respect. Moreover, there is nothing to prevent the Bureau being the same as that to be established for prisoners of war under the Third Convention, or being a department of it.
    During the Second World War, the Bureaux which had the task of transmitting information concerning civilian internees to the Central Agency were varied in nature and origin. In some cases, they were the same as the Bureaux responsible for prisoners of war; in others, they were established by the National Red Cross Society; most often, however, they depended directly on government authorities, such as the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Security. This last solution will probably be the one usually preferred, since, as a rule, it is these authorities which are responsible for not only civilian internees but all enemy aliens residing in the national territory.
    The Article begins with the words "Upon the outbreak of a conflict and in all cases of occupation ...". These words must be interpreted strictly. The Parties to the conflict must not, for example, delay organizing the Bureau until requests for information reach them concerning enemy civilians who may be in their territory, just as they must not wait until prisoners of war are taken before establishing the Bureau concerned with them. They are bound to take action at the very beginning and of their own accord. It would even be desirable for them to go ahead in peacetime by laying down guiding rules for the establishment of these Bureaux and deciding on their methods of work so that they are ready for any eventuality.
    [p.524] If territory is occupied, whether in face of armed resistance or not, the establishment of an Information Bureau is immediate and to some extent automatic. In most instances it will doubtless be set up in occupied territory proper. If a Bureau were also opened in the national territory of the Occupying Power, the one in occupied territory could even be given a more or less wide autonomy, based on the geographical restrictions on its activities, on the special position of protected persons in occupied territory, which differs in many respects from the position of persons in national territory, and also on the fact that it would probably, at least in the first phase of the occupation, be subject to the military authorities.
    Information may now be transmitted, therefore, not merely concerning civilian internees, as was the case during the Second World War, but also concerning all "protected persons", as defined in Article 4 of the Convention. It should be emphasized at the very beginning that there is no question of information being given at random concerning any protected person. The sort of information to be communicated to and by the national Bureau and the protected persons to whom it will relate will be explained below.
    It should also be noted in regard to this paragraph, that the corresponding provision in the Third Convention (Article 122, paragraph 1 ) contains three clauses which have not been repeated here. The first states that neutral or non-belligerent Powers shall institute an official Information Bureau if persons protected by that Convention have been received within their territory. The Conference of Government Experts had suggested the insertion of a similar clause in Article 136. The International Committee of the Red Cross considered, however, that in view of the special circumstances of their residence in neutral or non-belligerent countries and the objections they might perhaps raise to the communication of information concerning them to certain authorities, it was better to delete the clause from the Fourth Convention. In a large number of cases, those concerned would be able to use the postal services and would have every opportunity of writing themselves to organizations capable of putting them in touch, if they so desired, with their family.
    This point of view, supported by the XVIIth International Red Cross Conference, was shared by the Diplomatic Conference. It may be noted, furthermore, that the clause would have had no rational basis since the Fourth Convention does not impose obligations on neutral Powers.
    The other two clauses are new to the Third Convention; one states that the Power concerned shall ensure that the Bureau is provided with the necessary accommodation, equipment and staff to ensure its efficient working. This provision, while indicating the [p.525] importance to be attached to the Article, does not, however, seem indispensable, since the obligation laid on the Detaining Power to institute these Bureaux in itself obviously implies an obligation to ensure that they function normally. The other clause provides that the Detaining Power shall be at liberty to employ prisoners of war in its Bureau. The Powers may, indeed, have difficulty in recruiting qualified staff, particularly staff with a knowledge of languages, and a similar provision inviting them to draw on the talents of civilian internees, if needed, might have facilitated their task from the beginning. It was thought, however, that one of the principal reasons for the internment of civilians is precisely that they are mistrusted and that it was necessary to take that fact into account
    here. Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent these Powers, on the basis of the provision in the Third Convention, from appealing to qualified and trustworthy civilians, while, of course, observing the provisions of the Fourth Convention concerning work and payment for work (1), and provided that the need for a certain degree of discretion does not militate against it.

    PARAGRAPH 2. -- CENTRALIZATION. -- THE PURPOSE AND NATURE
    OF INFORMATION GIVEN

    1. ' Centralization '

    If the Information Bureau is to be able to fulfil its task, all information throughout the territory of the Detaining Power must be centralized. While the Convention indicates the need for the Bureau to be given information within the shortest possible period, it leaves the Detaining Power free to choose the method by which the information will be transmitted by the services, administrative departments or other authorities responsible for the protected persons.

    2. ' Purpose of the information '

    The first sentence defines the protected persons concerning whom information must be sent to the national Bureau. They are those who have been kept in custody for more than two weeks, who are subjected to assigned residence or who are interned.
    From the beginning of its studies, the International Committee of the Red Cross had considered that the general regulations governing internment should also be applied to civilians arrested either for offences against the Occupying Power or for security reasons, and [p.526] that their names and the fact of their arrest should be communicated to the Power of origin. This point of view was shared by the conferences of experts which followed, and was endorsed by the Diplomatic Conference, which went still further. Noting that during the Second World War a large number of persons disappeared without trace, the Diplomatic Conference considered that the national Information Bureau, in order to keep constant track of each person, should record every sort of detention, whether for political reasons or for offences against ordinary law, and whatever the authority responsible. The keeping of such a record, however, would not be necessary if detention did not exceed two weeks (2).
    The mention of persons subjected to assigned residence or interned confirms the more detailed provisions of Article 43 , which stipulates that the Detaining Power shall, unless the protected persons concerned object, give the Protecting Power the names of such persons (3).
    The list of protected persons concerning whom information must be transmitted ends there. It is conceivable, however, that, according to circumstances, notification will be sent to the Information Bureau, whether on their personal initiative or through the authorities concerning other categories of persons. This would apply, in particular, to persons who may have been transferred to another Detaining Power in conformity with Article 45 (4) , or who may have been evacuated as envisaged in Article 49 , or who may have been obliged to move as a result of military events or some calamity and to leave their place of residence. The criterion for deciding in each case whether information concerning a protected person should be transmitted or not will always be a humanitarian one, based particularly on the need never to lose track of the person concerned, so that contact between him and his family can be maintained.

    3. ' Nature of the information '

    The second sentence in the paragraph lists the various changes which may occur in the situation of a person kept in custody, interned or subjected to assigned residence and which must be communicated to the Information Bureau by the departments or organizations concerned. Unlike information concerning identity, which may only [p.527] be given by the protected person himself and which is dealt with in Article 138, the information referred to here is all known to the Detaining Power, which can therefore plead no excuse if it fails in its obligation to transmit it.
    The Detaining Power is also bound to inform its Bureau of any objections which a protected person may have to the communication of information concerning him to his country of origin.
    Furthermore, the Detaining Power will see to it that information is communicated to its Bureau promptly and as soon as one of the events listed takes place. The Bureau must, indeed, be enabled to comply with the mandatory provisions of Article 137 , which states that it shall immediately forward information by the most rapid means.
    The list given here of the different events or situations concerning which information must be given calls for some comment. ' Transfer ' must be understood to mean a change in the place of residence or camp in which the protected person is living, since the list applies to persons kept in custody for more than two weeks, subjected to assigned residence or internment.
    The mention of ' admittances to hospital ' should be taken together with paragraph 2 of Article 138 , which calls for the regular and, if possible, weekly transmission of information regarding the state of health of internees who are seriously ill or seriously wounded. This provision also justifies the transmission of information concerning the state of health of mother and child in the case of ' childbirth '.
    The important question of ' deaths ' was considered above in connection with Articles 129 and 130 . It should be recalled that not only the news of death, but ' death certificates ' must be communicated. Paragraph 3 of Article 129 stipulates that the Protecting Power and the Central Agency referred to in Article 140 must receive an official record of death duly registered and duly certified. The departments concerned must therefore send two duly certified copies of the death certificate to the national Bureau.
    This list of information which must be given to the national Bureau is not exhaustive. The Convention mentions two other tasks of the Bureaux, which require the co-operation of special departments and which have been left out here:

    (a) ' Children. ' -- Paragraph 4 of Article 50 stipulates that a special section of the Bureau shall be set up which shall be responsible for taking all necessary steps to identify children whose identity is in doubt and to record particulars of their parents or other near relatives (5).

    [p.528] (b) ' List of graves. ' -- Paragraph 3 of Article 130 stipulates that the Information Bureau shall forward, as soon as circumstances permit, and not later than the close of hostilities, lists of graves of deceased internees (6). It will be for the camp administrative authorities or for special departments -- which may be the Official Graves Registration Service established under Article 17 of the First Convention of 1949 (7) and Article 120 of the Third Convention -- to supply to their Information Bureau the information which they are obliged to give under this Article.


    Notes: (1) [(1) p.525] See Articles 95, 96 and 98;

    (2) [(1) p.526] See ' Report on the Work of the Conference of
    Government Experts, ' pp. 294- 295, and ' Final Record, '
    Vol. II-A. p. 845;

    (3) [(2) p.526] Articles 43, 136 and 137 are complementary
    concerning the type of information to be given and the
    method of transmission;

    (4) [(3) p.526] See above p. 265. It should be noted that
    these persons belong to the category of those whose names
    must be communicated, since either they are already
    interned or subjected to assigned residence or the
    transfer itself constitutes subjection to assigned
    residence;

    (5) [(1) p.527] See above, p. 289;

    (6) [(1) p.528] See above, p. 506;

    (7) [(2) p.528] See ' Commentary ' I, pp. 175-183;