Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
Treaties and Documents
Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries
Historical Treaties and Documents
Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
. -- CORRESPONDENCE
[p.344] The correspondence of prisoners of war was the subject of Article 36, paragraphs 1 and 3
, and Article 38, paragraph 3
, of the 1929 Convention; it was also referred to in Article 16
of the Hague Regulations (1).
At the beginning of the Second World War, the belligerents showed a marked tendency not to limit the number of letters and cards exchanged between prisoners of war and their next of kin. The great increase in the number of prisoners of war, due to the extension and rapidity of operations, soon led to restrictions since the postal and censorship services were overwhelmed. Most of the Detaining Powers therefore limited very strictly the number of letters and cards that each prisoner of war was allowed to send or to receive; other Powers imposed similar restrictions for next of kin. The situation soon eased, however, and by the end of 1940 the International Committee noted that most of the countries concerned, having no adequate means of control, had ceased to place any limit on the number of letters and cards which prisoners of war might receive, and had cut down the monthly outgoing mail to a minimum of two letters and four cards. Those figures remained practically unchanged until the end of the conflict (2).
[p.345] PARAGRAPH 1. -- LIMITATION AND FORWARDING
1. ' First sentence. -- Permission to correspond '
This sentence states a basic principle of the Convention. It recognizes the right of prisoners of war to maintain relations with the exterior to a certain extent.
In principle, prisoners of war are entitled to send and receive an unlimited number of letters and cards which may be sent to any destination or may come from any part of the world, without any distinction of a national kind.
That is the principle, but one can easily understand that its full application must inevitably be restricted, whether because of transport difficulties or because of the military security of the Detaining Power. It is nevertheless very important that the principle should have been stated in this way -- it was not included in the 1929 text -- since henceforth the only restrictions which may be placed on correspondence of prisoners are those specifically permitted under the Convention.
2. ' Second and third sentences. -- Limitations on correspondence
sent by prisoners of war '
The Detaining Power may limit correspondence sent by prisoners of war to a minimum figure which was fixed after long discussion at the Conference of Government Experts and later at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference. Restrictions may become necessary because of transport problems, which always cause difficulties for a country at war, and above all because of the requirements of censorship (Article 76
). If the volume of mail became too great, it might be held up indefinitely and it is therefore in the interest of the prisoners themselves to limit the number of letters and cards which they may send (3).
The number of letters and cards sent by prisoners of war will only be limited if the Detaining Power "deems it necessary" and reference has already been made to the considerations which may lead to restriction (4). Moreover, the figures given in the present provision are [p.346] a minimum which may only be reduced as an exceptional measure in accordance with the third sentence of this paragraph. It should be pointed out, however, that while it may be difficult to find sufficient translators to carry out censorship in a general conflict such as the Second World War, the situation is different when the conflict is of limited scope and the number of prisoners relatively small.
Model cards and letters are given in Annex IV and require no comment, except that they seem practical and likely to be satisfactory for prisoners of war. It is therefore to be hoped that the Detaining Powers will adopt them, as recommended by the present provision.
The capture cards provided for in Article 70
receive special treatment. The only information they contain is very summary and concerns the identity and state of health of prisoners of war. They must not therefor be considered as part of prisoners' ordinary correspondence.
3. ' Fourth sentence. -- Limitations on correspondence
addressed to prisoners of war '
As a general rule, the Detaining Power must not restrict the amount of correspondence addressed to prisoners of war.
The considerations which may lead to limitations on correspondence sent by prisoners of war in the interest of the latter may also, however, make it advisable to restrict the amount of correspondence which they receive. In that case, the decision to withhold mail cannot ad must not be taken by the Detaining Power; it is for the Power on which prisoners of war depend to decide to reduce the amount despatched.
A suggestion to this effect may, however, be made to the Power on which prisoners of war depend by the Detaining Power and also -- though this is not actually specified in the Convention -- by any other supervisory body, such as the Protecting Power or the International Committee of the Red Cross, or by the prisoners' representatives (5).
[p.347] 4. ' Fifth sentence. -- Forwarding, and disciplinary
The 1929 Convention provided that prisoners' mail was to be sent "by the shortest route"; the authors of the present Convention were right in substituting for this expression "by the most rapid method", which implies that it should be sent by air mail. Correspondence will normally be forwarded through the postal services, and the Central Agency will play only an auxiliary rôle. The belligerent States are not likely to be able to organize an air mail service for the correspondence of prisoners of war, but what they can at least do is to place the necessary means and facilities at the disposal of a neutral body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. The present provision must not, however, be interpreted as a requirement that the correspondence of prisoners of war must be sent exclusively by air mail, since it will not always be possible to allocate aircraft for this purpose (6).
The present text also provides that the correspondence of prisoners o war may not be delayed or retained for disciplinary reasons; similarly, individual or collective limitations on correspondence may not be imposed as punishment, since they are not included in the list given in Article 89
The position of prisoners serving a judicial sentence seems different. They are certainly entitled "to receive and despatch correspondence" (Article 108, paragraph 3
). It is in the spirit of the Article, however, that judicial sentences should be served under the same conditions as in the case of nationals of the Detaining Power, provided that certain essential guarantees are ensured, such as the right to send and receive correspondence. One might therefore conclude that the correspondence of such prisoners of war will be subject to the rules applicable in the establishment in which their sentence is to be served, especially as regards the number of messages. If, however, the censors discover correspondence harmful to the security of the Detaining Power, there would be no justification for imposing a general prohibition [p.348] on correspondence by way of punishment (8). Prohibition of correspondence is therefore only possible in accordance with Article 76, paragraph 3
, below, "for practical or military reasons", and even then it
must be "only temporary and its duration shall be as short as possible".
PARAGRAPH 2. -- TELEGRAMS
Article 38, paragraph 3
, of the 1929 Convention contained a similar provision, more briefly worded, but it received only limited application during the Second World War. The International Committee of the Red Cross nevertheless made unremitting efforts in the Far East, in liaison with the Japanese Government, to enable prisoners of war to exchange telegrams with their families (9); the result was fairly satisfactory, and the Central Agency received 61,000 telegraphic messages from relatives and sent them on to the Japanese official Bureau (10). During the First World War, the use of the telegraph was generally forbidden for security reasons (11).
The text as it now stands was approved by the 1949 Diplomatic Conference after several amendments (12). It authorizes the use of telegrams:
(a) when prisoners of war have been without news from their relatives for
a long period (13).
(b) when they are at a great distance from their homes;
(c) when they are unable to receive news from their next of kin or to
give them news by the ordinary postal route (14).
[p.349] Such telegrams are not exempt from charges, under Article 74, paragraph 2
; but paragraph 5 of that Article
requests the High Contracting Parties to endeavour to reduce the rates charged for telegrams sent or received by prisoners of war. This is the only provision which refers to the use of telegraphic services by prisoners of war, and it was widely applied by almost all the belligerents during the Second World War.
In itself, it is a good thing to restrict the use of telegrams to emergency cases, since the telegraphic services would be unable to cope with a heavy flow; but it is unfortunately difficult to set standards for assessing the degree of urgency.
It was suggested at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference that, in order to reduce the cost of sending telegrams, an annex should be added to the Convention, giving specimen telegraph forms using code-words (15).
PARAGRAPH 3. -- LANGUAGES
This provision is the same as that contained in Article 36, paragraph 3
, of the 1929 Convention.
If the right to correspond, as recognized by the present Article, is not to be completely illusory, prisoners of war and their correspondents must obviously be permitted to use a language familiar to them. [p.350] Some account must also be taken, however, of the security of the Detaining Power and of the work involved for the censorship provided for in Article 76
. During the Second World War, difficulties occurred particularly in the case of correspondence of prisoners of war in the Far East (16). The correspondence of prisoners of war will usually be in their native language, but they may have occasion to correspond with persons who do not know it; in that case, they may use another language, provided the Parties to the conflict so permit. Permission may be granted at the request of prisoners of war concerned, and the prisoners' representatives (Articles 79
-81) seem best placed to submit such requests to the authorities of the Detaining Power, on the one hand, and the Protecting Power, on the other hand. In any event, the Parties to the
conflict cannot oblige prisoners of war to use for their correspondence any language other than their mother tongue.
PARAGRAPH 4. -- SACKS OF MAIL
This paragraph, which states that prisoner-of-war mail must be placed in sacks securely sealed and labelled, met with some opposition at the Diplomatic Conference, on the ground that it might cause delay in forwarding.
One delegation pointed out, however, that it had two advantages and was likely, on the contrary, to facilitate the speedy forwarding of prisoners' mail: if the bags are sealed, they will probably not be opened for censorship in transit countries; again, if they are labelled, such countries will probably hasten their despatch, knowing that they contain prisoner-of-war mail (17).
The text was therefore retained in the imperative form in which it stands.
* (1) [(1) p.344] For Articles 36 and 38 of the 1929 Convention,
see below, pp. 718-719;
(2) [(2) p.344] With regard to the forwarding of
correspondence of prisoners of war during the Second World
War, see ' Report of the International Committee of the
Red Cross on its activities during the Second World War, '
Vol. II, pp. 56-63. See also ibid., Vol. I, pp. 347-351;
(3) [(1) p.345] As has already been seen, the minimum of two
letters and four cards per month, which is specified in
the present Convention, was adopted by the belligerents
during the Second World War. See ' Report on the Work of
the Conference of Government Experts, ' pp. 182-184;
(4) [(2) p.345] This provision is clearly based on the
experience of the Second World War, when, because of the
great number of prisoners of war, the censorship services
were overwhelmed by the volume of correspondence;
(5) [(1) p.346] During the Second World War, some Detaining
Powers supplied prisoners of war with correspondence forms
containing a reply sheet, and only communications written
on these reply sheets were accepted on arrival. Although
this system was not consistent with the 1929 Convention,
which made no provision for limitations on correspondence
addressed to prisoners of war, it actually led to an
improvement in the correspondence service for prisoners of
war. See BRETONNI RE, op. cit., pp. 227-229. In future,
any such system would require prior approval by the Power
on which prisoners of war depend;
(6) [(1) p.347] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949, ' Vol. II-A, p. 284;
(7) [(2) p.347] Article 98, paragraph 5, states that prisoners
of war awarded disciplinary punishment "shall have
permission to read and write, likewise to send and receive
letters". Although only letters are mentioned in this
clause, one must recognize that a prisoner awarded a
disciplinary sentence remains entitled to all the benefits
of the Prisoners of War Convention, as far as is
compatible with detention. His correspondence must
therefore not be more restricted than that of other
prisoners, either in quantity or in form (letter, card,
(8) [(1) p.348] During the First World War, correspondence was
frequently prohibited, as a disciplinary sanction; see
SCHEIDL, op. cit., pp. 406-408. This was also the case
during the Second World War, although it was in violation
of Article 36 of the 1929 Convention. See BRETONNI RE, op.
cit., pp. 229-230;
(9) [(2) p.348] Here the English text, which refers to
prisoners of war who are at a great distance ' from their
homes, ' is less favourable than the French: "à une grande
distance ' des leurs '";
(10) [(3) p.348] See ' Report of the International Committee of
the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World
War, ' Vol. II, pp. 61-62;
(11) [(4) p.348] See SCHEIDL, op. cit., pp. 415-416;
(12) [(5) p.348] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949, ' Vol. II-A, p. 334; Vol.
III, pp. 76-77;
(13) [(6) p.348] During the Second World War, the criterion
adopted was three months;
(14) [(7) p.348] I.e. in the case of prisoners held by a Power
which is surrounded by enemy countries;
(15) [(1) p.349] During the Second World War, at the suggestion
of the Holy See, a system of telegraphic messages in
simplified corde-words was successfully instituted between
Italy and North Africa. It is not suitable, however, for
serious cases where a prisoner of war has to telegraph
concerning private or family affairs; the 1949 Diplomatic
Conference therefore did not refer to it in the Article,
but adopted the following resolution:
' Resolution No. 9: ' "Whereas Article 71 of the
Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners
of War of August 12, 1949, provides that prisoners of war
who have been without news for a long period, or who are
unable to receive news from their next of kin or to give
them news by the ordinary postal route, as well as those
who are at a great distance from their home, shall be
permitted to send telegrams, the fees being charged
against the prisoners of war's accounts with the Detaining
Power or paid in the currency at their disposal, and that
prisoners of war shall likewise benefit by these
facilities in cases of urgency; and
whereas to reduce the cost, often prohibitive, of
such telegrams or cables, it appears necessary that some
method of grouping messages should be introduced whereby a
series of short specimen messages concerning personal
health, health of relatives at home, schooling, finance,
etc. could be drawn up and numbered, for use by prisoners
of war in the aforesaid circumstances,
the Conference, therefore, requests the International
Committee of the Red Cross to prepare a series of specimen
messages covering these requirements and to submit them to
the High Contracting Parties for their approval".
See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of
Geneva of 1949, ' Vol. II-A, p. 335; Vol. II-B, pp.
(16) [(1) p.350] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949, ' Vol. II-A, p. 284. See
also ' Report of the International Committee of the Red
Cross on its activities during the Second World War, ' Vol.
I, pp. 452-454;
(17) [(2) p.350] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949, ' Vol. II-A, p. 334;