ICRC databases on international humanitarian law
Treaties and Documents
1949 Conventions and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries
Historical Treaties and Documents
Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
[p.581] ARTICLE 123
. -- CENTRAL AGENCY
GENERAL REMARKS AND HISTORICAL SURVEY
The Central Agency dates back to 1870 (1). During the Franco-German war, the International Committee of the Red Cross first took the initiative of opening in Basle an official agency concerned with wounded and sick soldiers and soon after added an office for collecting and forwarding all possible information concerning prisoners of war. The same thing was done in 1877 at Trieste and in 1912 at Belgrade. It was in 1914, however, that the establishment of an international Prisoners of War Agency faced the International Committee with all the complexities of the vast problem of collecting and forwarding information concerning wounded, sick or deceased prisoners as well as civilians. A year after its establishment, the Agency was already employing 1,200 persons and had taken on considerable importance. The 1929 Conference took account of the experience gained, and Article 79
of the 1929 Convention therefore gave the legal basis to [p.582] the International Committee which in 1939 enabled it to open in Geneva the Central Prisoners of War Agency, whose
activities are well known: in premises with a total working area of 11,000 sq. metres worked 2,585 people, of whom 1,676 gave their services free; whereas at the end of the First World War the card indexes of the International Agency contained 7 million cards, those of the Central Agency contained 36 million at the end of June 1947, between 6 and 7 million of them concerning civilians.
The 1949 Diplomatic Conference was therefore careful not to interfere with the structure and legal basis of the Agency, which it confirmed in the present Convention and repeated in identical terms in the Fourth (Article 140
), merely adding in both cases a request to the High Contracting Parties to give the Central Agency any financial aid it might require.
PARAGRAPH 1. -- ESTABLISHMENT -- ORGANIZATION
Some delegates to the 1949 Diplomatic Conference, emphasizing that the Agency was a necessity, wondered whether the 1929 text should not be amended in order to make it clear that the International Committee of the Red Cross must organize the Agency. They were, however, the first to recognize the correctness of the International Committee's viewpoint when it pointed out that the 1929 wording was much to be preferred and ought to be left unchanged. Its very flexibility, indeed, made it possible for the International Committee to meet any sort of situation, by not setting up an Agency, for instance, when the brevity of a conflict did not justify it, or -- as it had already had occasion to do (2) -- by transferring the Agency or some of its sections to a country more easily accessible to the belligerents (3).
Furthermore, provision must be made for cases where the International Committee might consider that other bodies or a national Red Cross Society would be better fitted in the circumstances to carry out the task. It may, moreover, be forced by events to cease activities; it is then important that the possibility should remain of others taking over all or part of those activities, and especially the establishment of the Agency.
[p.583] The International Committee is not, therefore, obliged itself to organize the Central Agency. It is merely to "propose" its establishment to the Powers concerned "if it deems necessary". Do these words, which date from the 1929 Convention, mean that the Powers could reject the suggestion? They do, but the Powers would then have to agree to the establishment somehow of a Central Information Agency in a neutral country, for its establishment is obligatory.
Another point is also left to the discretion of the International Committee of the Red Cross: whether to separate the Agency concerned with civilians from that to be set up under the present provision for the benefit of the wounded and sick and prisoners of war. The circumstances prevailing at the time may indeed lead it to prefer two separate Agencies, in different countries. Such circumstances will, of course, be exceptional, since the advantages of combining the two Agencies into a single body are many and obvious -- the same working methods, the same skilled staff, the same machines, etc (4).
Only one obligation arises under this paragraph, i.e. that the Central Agency "shall be created in a neutral country". The Agency must indeed be neutral if it is to work. As an intermediary between two or more belligerents, it cannot accomplish its humanitarian task, which requires absolute confidence on their part, except by observing complete impartiality in its methods of work and in the attitude of its staff. Furthermore, the Agency must be in almost continuous contact with the belligerent Parties and such contact can be maintained only if it has its headquarters in a neutral country.
A conflict might conceivably break out, however, in which there were no more neutral countries or at least which left neutral only countries unfitted for or opposed to the establishment of the Agency on their territory. It would then be for the belligerents themselves to come to a direct agreement to entrust the establishment of an Agency to an institution of their own choice, such as a Red Cross Society in one of the belligerent countries, or to agree on a certain amount of postal traffic for the exchange, which is obligatory, of information concerning their nationals.
In 1939, the International Committee of the Red Cross opened a Central Agency for the needs of the Second World War, and it has continued in existence ever since. Whenever a conflict has occurred since the Second World War, the International Committee has placed the Agency at the disposal of the belligerents, and the latter have accepted its services.
[p.584] An administrative body of a permanent nature therefore exists, which is still dealing with enquiries relating not only to the Second World War, but even to the First, and there is thus no need to open an Agency anew each time the occasion arises. It should be emphasized, once more, that the operation of a Central Information Agency is obligatory whenever a conflict occurs.
PARAGRAPH 2. -- TASKS OF THE AGENCY
1. ' Collection and nature of information '
The first task of the Agency is to collect all possible information concerning prisoners of war. It will obtain that information first of all from the national Information Bureaux as provided in Article 122
; this represents the "official channel". It may, however, also resort to "private channels".
This concentration of information, and the fact that the Agency brings together items of information from all the belligerent countries, gives its work considerable value, particularly when war-torn countries are disorganized and their archives scattered.
Another task -- perhaps the most important -- is that of transmitting to the various national Bureaux, safe-keeping and filing information, documents and articles which the Powers themselves are obliged to send to the Agency under various provisions of the Convention. The obligations which Article 122
lays on the belligerents and on neutral countries have already been examined at length, but there are other Articles which must also be borne in mind (5):
Article 30, paragraph 4
, which provides that duplicates of medical certificates issued to prisoners of war must be sent to the Central Agency;
Article 54, paragraph 2
, which contains a similar provision relating to medical certificates for prisoners of war who sustain accidents at work;
Article 68, paragraph 2
, which stipulates that the Detaining Power must forward, through the intermediary of the Central Agency, a copy of the statement issued to prisoners of war regarding impounded valuables or sums of money which have not been returned to them;
Article 77, paragraph 1
, which provides for the transmission, through the intermediary of the Central Agency or the Detaining [p.585] Power, of legal documents concerning prisoners of war, especially powers of attorney;
Article 120, paragraph 1
, which provides that whenever a will is transmitted to the Protecting Power, at the request or after the death of a prisoner of war, a certified copy must be sent to the Central Agency.
One activity of the Agency which is now officially confirmed by the new Convention is concerned with the receipt and filing of capture cards and the transmission of the information contained in them. This has been commented upon at length in connection with Article 70
The very title "Central Information Agency" indicates the size of the task of replying to enquiries sent from all sides in times of conflict and the investigations made necessary by those enquiries. In this respect, it should be noted that its work would be greatly assisted if all information and requests for enquiry or search were sent to it on cards of a uniform type and of the same dimensions as the capture cards (10.5 x 15 cm) (6), which the national Red Cross Societies, for example, could draw up and make available to enquirers.
For a more detailed and precise account of all the Agency's tasks, reference should be made to the ' Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World War ', (Vol. II, Geneva, May 1948).
2. ' Facilities for transmission '
One of the essential factors determining the effectiveness of the Central Agency is the rapidity with which it can transmit information, particularly to the national Information Bureaux. In this respect the paragraph is explicit: the Agency must transmit "as rapidly as possible" to the Powers concerned the information it receives.
The slowness of postal communications or the great distances involved have often obliged the Agency to use the telegraph but this [p.586] was financially very burdensome and the expenditure which the Agency had to claim from the States concerned was often only reimbursed with great reluctance. Henceforth, the use of telegrams will be made easier by Article 124
, which provides that the Agency must, so far as possible, be given the benefit of partial or total exemption from telegraphic charges.
However, the clause which seems likely to have the greatest importance for the Central Agency is that which refers to "all facilities for effecting such transmissions".
Since exemption from charges and financial help for the Agency are expressly provided for in Article 124
, it may be deduced that the facilities mentioned here are not financial. The statement implies that the Central Agency will be able to request a certain priority for its communications, both in postal and telegraphic traffic, a priority which will, of course, have to make due allowance for the requirements of the war effort. The Convention mentions only the Parties to the conflict, but the non-belligerents, who are not subject to those requirements, should also be obliged to an even greater extent to grant priorities of this kind.
This stipulation is of still greater value in respect of a means of communication which the Agency was led to develop at the end of the war for the most varied purposes, i.e. broadcasting. This method is likely to play a useful part in the receipt and transmission of information, in so far as the names of the persons concerned are not distorted, and provided account is taken of the legitimate desire of the belligerents that the information given may not be exploited for military or propaganda purposes.
Therefore, at the request of the International Committee of the Red Cross, supported by the national Red Cross Societies, the International High Frequency Broadcasting Conference held in Mexico City in 1947 decided to allocate to the International Committee, through the Swiss Confederation, a certain number of broadcasting times and frequencies which might, in case of need, be allocated wholly or in part to the Agency. This is the first application of the provision examined above.
The provision goes further: it implies au obligation on the States party to the Convention to "respect" the broadcasts of the Central Agency for humanitarian purposes -- i.e. not only to refrain from jamming them, but also to put their broadcasting services at the disposal of representatives or departments of the Agency abroad, in [p.587] order to enable them to establish rapid contact with Geneva or any other place where the Agency might be situated (7).
Another "facility" which might be granted to assist the Agency arises from Article 75
of the Convention, concerning the means of transport which might be provided by the Protecting Powers, the International Committee of the Red Cross or any other authorized body, in order to ensure the forwarding of the consignments mentioned in Articles 70
. These means of transport could, in case of need, also be used by the Central Agency for forwarding the correspondence, lists and reports which it exchanges with the national Bureaux.
PARAGRAPH 3. -- FINANCIAL SUPPORT
During the preparatory work for the revision of the Convention, the attention of Governments was drawn to the question of the expenditure incurred in the operation of the Central Agency, a matter which the 1929 Convention did not regulate.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is responsible for proposing the organization of the Agency, has always drawn on the funds at its disposal for the means necessary for the Agency to operate. It may happen, however, and did during the last World War, that the Agency's activities suddenly expand to an unexpected extent, so that the funds available to the Committee, which are always restricted and are needed for many other tasks, may prove inadequate. During the First World War, an appreciable part of the Agency's resources consisted of sums of money which families sent in spontaneously, often by enclosing a banknote in their letters. The restrictions imposed on currency transfers during the Second World War because of the shortage of foreign exchange deprived the Central Agency of this source of revenue during the last conflict. Now, the Agency must be able to operate uninterruptedly. It was therefore natural that the Powers concerned should seek to ensure that it receives the necessary funds.
For that purpose, the XVIIth International Red Cross Conference made provision for an apportionment of expenses among the [p.588] belligerents pro rata to the services the Agency rendered to their nationals (8). However, the insistence on proportional payment, apart from the difficulties of accountancy which it might entail, failed to take into account two facts: on the one hand, any step taken by the Agency in behalf of a prisoner or an internee is not only to the advantage of the State of which he is a national but also indirectly, and to a certain degree, to the advantage of the Detaining Power; on the other hand, prisoners of war may no longer have a Government to meet these expenses and yet they need the services of the Agency at least as much as if not more than others.
With these facts in mind the Diplomatic Conference finally abandoned the principle of proportionality and adopted the present provision. Despite the fact that the wording is less imperative than that of the Stockholm draft, it was considered suitable for emphasizing the fact that the operation of the Agency, in view of its importance, must in no case be hindered and for calling the attention not only of the belligerent Powers but of all States party to the Convention to this matter, since they all implicitly recognize the usefulness and universality of the Central Information Agency.
PARAGRAPH 4. -- OTHER HUMANITARIAN ACTIVITIES
In the 1929 Convention, the only specific activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross to receive express mention were the right to carry out its humanitarian work (Article 88
) and the organization of the Central Agency. It was necessary, therefore, to state clearly that the mention of those activities was not intended to exclude action by the International Committee in other domains in behalf of prisoners.
The 1949 Conventions provide expressly for the other specific activities of the International Committee, apart from those falling within the competence of the Agency (relief, camp visits, etc.). The last paragraph of the 1929 text was nevertheless repeated, and for this there can be no explanation unless an entirely general sense is henceforth given to the clause. It is, it seems, in the nature of a reservation which might be added to any of the clauses of the Conventions entrusting a task to the Committee and which means that [p.589] none of them must restrict the manifold activities which the Committee may be led to undertake, partly with the assistance of the national Red Cross Societies, to meet the requirements of prisoners of war.
Paragraph 3 of the 1929 Article is reproduced, however, with a small addition in order also to cover the activities of the relief societies provided for in Article 125
At first sight, the connection between these phrases and what goes before is not very clear. In fact, the situation which they are intended to cover is very different from that envisaged at the beginning of the paragraph and there would have been some advantage, it would seem, in embodying the provision, more explicitly, in another Article, for example that relating to relief societies. Perhaps, however, the addition is to be explained by a wish not to attach too much importance to what is merely a contingency.
It might happen, indeed, and has done in the past, that an organization for assistance to prisoners of war and civilian internees, approved by the Powers concerned, may successfully develop activities connected with the transmission and collection of information concerning prisoners and internees, although such activities are not explicitly mentioned among the tasks listed in the Article on relief societies as being among their functions. In such a case, it would be regrettable if activities of that kind, which might be useful to a great number of war victims, were to be rejected by a belligerent on the pretext that the Central Agency has a monopoly in the matter. In humanitarian activities, such a pretext is inadmissible and the addition to the paragraph is intended to make that point clear.
It should be noted, however, that if a belligerent Power approved the activities of a relief society in this sphere and agreed to supply it with information concerning protected persons, whether members of the armed forces or civilians, held in detention, it would nevertheless still be obliged to communicate periodically to the Central Agency, in accordance with the provisions of the Conventions, information concerning those persons. A sharp distinction must be drawn between the basic, universal and obligatory character of the Agency's activities as far as States are concerned and the probably more restricted and optional character of activities which might be developed by a relief society for the same purposes. Nothing must be done to whittle down the requirements of the Conventions; centralization in a single department, neutral from every point of view, of all information concerning protected persons, whether members of the armed forces or civilians, as the only method of enabling the greatest [p.590] advantage to be drawn from such information
for the persons themselves, a fact proved by the experience of the two world wars and well understood by the Diplomatic Conferences of 1929 and 1949.
The Agency's activities are not, however, limited to prisoners of war. Since the end of the Second World War, the "civilians" department of the Agency has been constantly engaged in re-uniting families. Between 1951 and 1955, more than 100,000 children and adults, who had been dispersed by the war and its direct consequences, benefited from the family reunion programme undertaken through the Agency services with the participation of nineteen countries and the national Red Cross Societies.
* (1) [(1) p.581] For further information, see ' Report of the
International Committee of the Red Cross on its activities
during the Second World War ', Vol. II: The Central Agency
for Prisoners of War, Geneva 1948;
(2) [(1) p.582] For instance, during the Balkans war, in 1912;
(3) [(2) p.582] The XVIIth International Red Cross Conference
adopted a Resolution (No. XVII) inviting the Governments
to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross
every facility in cases where transfers of this kind were
(4) [(1) p.583] See Fourth Convention, Article 140;
(5) [(1) p.584] See above p. 106, note 1;
(6) [(1) p.585] It should be noted in this connection that the
internment card as suggested in the specimen annexed to
the Fourth Convention (Annex III) measures 10 x 15 cm.
This slight difference in width is doubtless the result of
a mistake, for there is no reason to make these cards of
different sizes, far from it. It would therefore be
advisable for the Powers, when drawing up capture and
internment cards, to keep to one of the two sizes for both
sorts of cards. A width of 10 cm would seem to be
preferable; on the other hand, it is important that they
should not be more than 15 cm long, otherwise they would
not fit in the present card-indexes of the Agency. It
should further be noted that if this size should appear
inadequate, it would always be possible to draw up a
folding card of double size (20 x 15 cm), also accepted by
(7) [(1) p.587] The wavelength allocated to the International
Committee of the Red Cross is 41.61 m., 7,210 kcl.; see
also ' Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge ', 1956, pp.
(8) [(1) p.588] This proposal read as follows: "The costs of
operating the Central Information Agency shall be borne
proportionately by the belligerents whose nationals have
the benefit of its services". See ' Diplomatic Conference
for the Establishment of International Conventions for the
Protection of War Victims, Working Document No. 3 ', p.