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.387] Chapter II
' Prisoners' Representatives '
GENERAL REMARKS AND HISTORICAL SURVEY
A. ' Before the 1929 Convention. ' -- During the 1870 war between France and Prussia, the International Relief Committee for Prisoners of War (Green Cross), which had been established under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, opened an Information Bureau at Basle. It had already suggested to the military authorities of the two belligerent countries that a "person of trust" should be appointed in each prisoner-of-war camp to be responsible for distributing relief supplies.
The custom of appointing such persons of trust took definite shape during the First World War. Early in the conflict, with the approval of the camp commanders, mutual aid societies had been formed in some German camps for French prisoners of war, in behalf of prisoners who received no parcels. The French Red Cross proposed that this should become a general measure, and in July 1915 the German Government authorized the establishment of mutual aid societies and relief funds in all the camps. At the same time, the International Committee wrote to many camp commanders, suggesting that "men of confidence" should be chosen from amongst the prisoners to receive and distribute relief. This soon became a practice in most of the camps and was confirmed by the bilateral agreements concluded between the belligerents in 1917 and 1918, which provided for the appointment of a relief committee in each camp or labour detachment comprising more than a hundred men of the same nationality; the committee was to be chosen freely by the prisoners, and furthermore
in each detachment of more than ten men a freely elected "man of confidence" was to be appointed to maintain liaison with the relief committee of the main camp (1).
[p.388] B. ' The 1929 Convention. ' -- Article 43
of the 1929 Convention codified the duties of the prisoners' representative in regard to relief supplies and also assigned him an important task of a general nature, that of representing prisoners of war before the military authorities and the Protecting Powers. The States agreed that there should be an intermediary between their own representatives and prisoners of war; such a person would have the confidence of both parties and relations between them would thereby be facilitated. This also made it possible for prisoners of war to participate to some extent in the application of the rules governing their status.
C. ' The 1949 Convention. ' -- The rôle of prisoners' representatives developed immensely during the Second World War, and in almost all prisoner-of-war camps, important responsibilities were entrusted to them. The existence of prisoners' representatives no longer depends on the question of relief but is based on the three following principles:
1. in all places where there are prisoners of war, the prisoners shall
freely elect representatives who must be approved by the Detaining
2. these representatives must co-operate with the Detaining Power with a
view to improving the lot of the prisoners;
3. prisoners' representatives must be accorded all necessary
prerogatives for carrying out their tasks: time, material facilities,
and freedom of action.
* (1) [(1) p.387] Franco-German Agreement of March 15, 1918.
Article 50 provided that in all camps or labour
detachments comprising more than a hundred men, prisoners
of war were entitled to appoint relief committees, such
appointments being subject to approval by the camp
commander. It was the duty of these committees to receive
and distribute collective relief shipments;