ICRC databases on international humanitarian law
Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
Treaties and Documents
Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries
Historical Treaties and Documents
Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977.
Reunion of dispersed families
[p.857] Article 74
-- Reunion of dispersed families
2986 Since the Second World War the reunion of dispersed families has become a major concern of humanitarian organizations. That conflict
was actually characterized by the enormous numbers of people who were
obliged to leave their normal place of residence by various
constraints: capture by the enemy, exodus before the invasion
following the destructions of war, evacuation ordered by the national
or occupation authorities, mass migration of whole populations,
forced labour, voluntary or compulsory evacuations, deportation for
political or racial reasons, etc.
2987 The consequences of such removal from people's normal places of residence were further aggravated by the difficulty, and even
impossibility, for them to send news from the place to which they had
been moved. In this way family ties were abruptly and sometimes
[p.858] 2988 The ICRC endeavoured tu put members of a family who had not heard from one another in contact with each other by collecting information
regarding the identity of displaced persons. Before it is possible to
reunite members of a family, it is of course necessary to find them
and reestablish contact. In this field the existence of a fixed
information and collection point is essential. With this idea in mind
the ICRC created the Central Tracing Agency, which has now become a
permanent organization. (1)
2989 In addition, in 1943 the Allied authorities set up a tracing organization for the purpose of collecting all the documentation on
missing persons and dispersed families. In 1947 this organization
received the name of International Tracing Service (ITS) and in 1948
it was established in Arolsen (FRG). This organization first depended
on the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration
(UNRRA), then to the International Refugee Organization (IRO), and
finally to the Allied High Commission for Germany. In 1955 the Allied
authorities entrusted the management and administration of this
service to the ICRC under an international agreement and the ICRC
still continues to run it today. The ITS has assembled the largest
collection world-wide of archives on concentration camps, so that, in
particular, it is able to provide information and certificates
required by former deportees, foreign labour and displaced persons,
as well as by their relatives.
2990 Once the members of a dispersed family have been put into contact, reuniting them has often posed problems, and the ICRC
endeavoured to help them to get together in a place of their choice.
It is estimated that after the Second World War it contributed to
reuniting approximately 700,000 persons with their families.
2991 In this field the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also brought about many reunions of families by facilitating the
acceptance of members of a family by a country where one member of
that family already was. Obstacles often arose because governments
were opposed to their nationals leaving, or refused to allow any more
persons to enter their territory, and reunions were often achieved
only after long and patient negotiation.
2992 Similar situations have arisen many times since the Second World War. For example, the war in Korea led to large-scale migration of
the population, so that numerous families were separated. In the
Middle East various conflicts have also led to displacement of
populations so that members of a family are often separated.
Population movement in Southeast Asia took place on a large scale,
and many people have sought refuge, and are still seeking refuge in
neighbouring countries. In all these situations, and in other cases,
the ICRC has endeavoured to make contact between members of dispersed
families by setting up special offices either in Geneva where the
Central Tracing Agency is established, or at the seat of ICRC
delegations in the countries concerned. Thus important services have
been rendered to dispersed families.
2993 In 1949 the Diplomatic Conference agreed to include Article 26
in the fourth Convention. This article is devoted to dispersed families
and reads as follows:
h Party to the conflict shall facilitate enquiries made by members of families dispersed owing to the war, with the object of renewing contact with [p.859] one another and of meeting, if possible. It shall encourage, in particular, the work of organizations engaged on this task provided they are acceptable to it and conform to its security regulations
2994 This provision, which is not a very strong obligation, has been of some use and was frequently invoked by organizations devoted to
the reunion of dispersed families, particularly by the ICRC.
2995 However, in 1976 the non-governmental organizations concerned with such problems considered that on the occasion of the adoption of
the Protocol it would be appropriate to go slightly further by urging
governments to facilitate the reunion of families. Thus the ICRC and
the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, with the support
of the United Nations High Commission or for Refugees, agreed on a
text and succeeded in persuading several governments to submit it as
a new article numbered 64 bis. This led to amendment CDDH/III/ 329,
submitted by 28 governments; Committee III adopted it by consensus
without any change, and it was also adopted by consensus in plenary.
Thus it has become Article 74
2996 The article requires very little explanation, as its text is clear.
2997 Yet the question might arise, what is meant by "family"? In the narrow sense, the family covers persons related by blood and living
together as one household. In a wider sense it covers all persons
with the same ancestry. In the context of Article 74
it would be
wrong to opt for an excessively rigid or precise definition; common
sense must prevail. Thus the word "family" here of course covers
relatives in a direct line -- whether their relationship is legal or
natural -- spouses, brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, nephews and
nieces, but also less closely related relatives, or even unrelated
persons, belonging to it because of a shared life or emotional ties
(cohabitation, engaged couples etc.). In short, all those who
consider themselves and are considered by each other, to be part of a
family, and who wish to live together, are deemed to belong to that
2998 The main innovation of this article compared with 1949 is the duty imposed on Parties to the conflict and on Contracting Parties to
facilitate the reunion of families. This duty is not only imposed on
Contracting Parties which are Parties to the conflict, but also on
Contracting Parties which are not involved in the conflict. This is
quite logical, since it often happens during armed conflict that
nationals of a country involved in a conflict seek refuge or are
taken to neutral countries.
2999 The second part of the article merely reiterates, with some further details, what was said in 1949: the organizations concerned
must act in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva Conventions
and of this Protocol. Reference should be made in particular to
' (Activities of the Red Cross and other humanitarian
organizations). ' The last part of the article refers to "their
respective security regulations". This clearly refers to security
regulations laid down by the Contracting Parties or the Parties to
the conflict, and not to security regulations which humanitarian
organizations might have been induced to issue. From a grammatical
point of view, the possessive pronoun "their" could refer to either,
in the English text as well as in the French and Spanish texts, but
the intention is quite clear.
' C.P./J.P. '
(1) [(1) p.858] For further details on the Central Tracing
Agency, see commentary Art. 78, para. 3, infra, p. 914;