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War and family links: relevant legal texts

27-11-2000

Forwarding information, tracing missing persons and family reunification under international humanitarian law and Red Cross law

 



 
The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols 
   
  •  Wounded and Sick Members of the Armed Forces and those Killed in Action  

According to Articles 15 and 16 of the First Geneva Convention, the parties to a conflict must search for, care for, and identify the wounded, sick, or dead of the adverse party. The same obligation exists in the Second Geneva Convention (Arts. 18 and 19). Detailed information regarding these persons must be forwarded to the National Information Bureau set up by each of the warring parties to centralize information on individuals in their power. The Bureau must in turn transmit these data to the ICRC's Central Tracing Agency (CTA) and to the Protecting Power, which then forward the information to the Power on which these individuals depend.

 
Forwarding of News and Information 
   
  •  Prisoners of war  

Under Article 70 of the Third Geneva Convention, every prisoner of war (POW) has the right, immediately upon capture, to send a capture card to his family and to the Central Tracing Agency (CTA).

According to Articl e 71 of the Convention, POWs are entitled to send and to receive letters and cards. Censorship is provided for under Article 76.

POWs way also send and receive legal documents through the CTA (Art. 77).

Death certificates must be drawn up for POWs who die in captivity and then sent to the National Information Bureau (Art. 120).

Article 122 provides for the establishment, by each of the parties in conflict, of a National Information Bureau, which centralizes all information relating to POWs. The Bureau must transmit such information to the CTA (and the Protecting Power) by the quickest possible means.

In accordance with Article 123, the CTA then forwards the information to the Power on which the POWs depend.

   
  •  Civilians  

According to Article 25 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, civilians have the right to send and receive news of a strictly personal nature. The CTA's role is to facilitate the exchange of family news when regular postal services are no longer functioning. The role of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is also expressly mentioned in this article. The parties in conflict may insist on the use of standard 25-word message forms and limit the number of messages sent to one per month.

Under Article 106, civilian internees have the right, as soon as they are interned, to send internment cards to their families and to the CTA.

Article 107 entitles civilian internees to correspond, subject to censorship (Art. 112).

The CTA arranges for the forwarding of legal documents from and to civilian internees (Art. 113). In case of death, death certificates must be drawn up and a duly certifi ed copy sent to the CTA (Art. 129).

Article 136 stipulates that the parties to the conflict must set up National Information Bureaux to centralize information on persons protected by the Convention. The Bureau must send this information to the CTA (and the Protecting Power) by the quickest possible means.

The CTA then forwards the information to the country of origin or residence of the persons concerned (Art. 140). It will not transmit such information, however, in cases where this might prove detrimental to the persons themselves or to their families.

When children are evacuated abroad, a card must be drawn up with full details on each child so as to facilitate its subsequent return home (Art. 78, Additional Protocol I). These cards are centralized by the CTA.

   
  •  Tracing Missing Persons  

Under Article 26 of the Fourth Convention, the warring parties must facilitate enquiries made by members of families dispersed as a result of the conflict so as to help them restore contact with one another and try to bring them together again. The parties to the conflict must also encourage the work of organizations engaged in this task.

Article 32 of Additional Protocol I states that families have the right to be informed of the fate of missing relatives. Under Article 33 of the Protocol, the parties to the conflict must search for persons reported missing by an adverse party. Article 34 contains rules relating to the remains of the deceased.

   
  •  Reunification of Separated Family Members  

States must faci litate in every possible way the reunification of families separated as a result of armed conflict and must provide support for humanitarian organizations engaged in this task (Art. 74, Protocol I).

 
Resolutions of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent 
 

    

The Handbook of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (13th edition, Geneva, 1995) contains a number of resolutions adopted by the International Conference on the following matters:

   
  •  The missing and the dead in armed conflicts  

The parties in conflict are urged to help locate the graves of the dead and cooperate with the ICRC and the National Societies in their work of accounting for the missing and the dead (22nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Tehran 1973, Resolution V).

   
  •  Wearing of identity discs  

The parties to a conflict are requested to provide their troops with identity discs (24th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Manila 1981, Resolution I).

   
  •  Obtaining and transmitting personal data as a means of protection and preventing disappearances  

The parties to a conflict are urged to provide identity discs for their armed forces and to set up National Information Bureaux. The Conference condemns any act leading to forced or involuntary disappearances (25th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva 1986, Resolution XIII).

   
  •  National Information Bureaux  

The States party to the Geneva Conventions are urged to establish National Information Bureaux (25th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva 1986, Resolution XIV).

   
  •  Role and activity of the Red Cross in time of civil war  

The ICRC and the National Societies are invited inter alia to work together in order to obtain facilities for the transmission of news of a personal nature and for the reunification of families (16th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, London 1938, Resolution XIV).

   
  •  Cooperation between National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and governments in the reuniting of dispersed families  

Referring to past resolutions on the subject, the Conference calls on governments to support National Societies in their efforts to search for and reunite separated family members and to give favourable consideration to applications from persons wishing to rejoin their families (25th International C onference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva 1986, Resolution XV).

   
  •  Role of the Central Tracing Agency and the National Societies in tracing activities and the reuniting of families  

A reminder of the role of the CTA as coordinator and technical adviser. The National Societies are asked to pursue their efforts to reunite separated family members and to do their utmost to fulfil their role as components of the international tracing and family reunification network. Governments are requested to give the Movement all necessary support in this regard (25th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva 1986, Resolution XVI).

   
  •  International Red Cross aid to refugees  

Point 9 of the statement of policy annexed to the resolution states that the CTA is " always ready in co-operation with National Societies to act in aid of refugees and displaced persons, for instance by facilitating the reuniting of dispersed families, by organizing the exchange of family news and by tracing missing persons " . The CTA may offer technical assistance to National Societies to enable them to set up and develop their own tracing and mailing services (24th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Manila 1981, Resolution XXI).

   
  •  Protection of children in armed conflicts  

In point 5 the Conference recommends that, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, all necessary measures be taken to preserve family unity and facilitate family reunification (25th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva 1986, Resolution IX).

   
  •  Assistance to children in emergency situations  

Under point 3 the Conference urges governments, the Movement and other relief agencies to take appropriate measures to identify unaccompanied minors as soon as possible, to establish and maintain individual files, and to ensure that tracing efforts are made with a view to family reunification (25th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva 1986).

   
  •  Forced or involuntary disappearances  

The ICRC is urged to take any appropriate action that might help in ascertaining the fate of missing persons. The Conference calls for the CTA or any other impartial humanitarian organization to be granted the facilities it needs to take effective action. It also asks governments to try and prevent disappearances and to undertake thorough inquiries into every case of disappearance occurring on their territory (24th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Manila 1981, Resolution II).

(DDM/JUR, JLA, 1.7.95)