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
Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
. -- FAMILY NEWS
[p.191] GENERAL BACKGROUND
The outbreak of hostilities immediately results in the severance of postal communications; almost insurmountable barriers are raised between the countries at war, and millions of men and women are left without news of one another.
During the First World War the International Committee of the Red Cross did its best to redress this unfortunate situation by forming its first civilian message service under the auspices of the Central Prisoners of War Agency. This service enabled some degree of contact to be maintained between members of the same family who had been separated by the war. Later, at the time of the Spanish War, the Committee devised a system of messages of twenty-five words each, which allowed communications to be maintained between civilians living on either side of the fronts. These messages were collected by the International Committee's delegates and sent to Geneva, whence they were forwarded to the addressees. More than five million were transmitted in this manner from one zone to the other.
During the Second World War the International Committee of the Red Cross again acted as an intermediary in this work. In the autumn of 1939 it set up a Civilian Message Section as part of the Central Prisoners of War Agency. In view of the vast number of messages received it devised a special family message form which is universally accepted today. The German and British Red Cross Societies were the first to accept this system of civilian messages and ensured their transmission in both directions via the International Committee. All Red Cross Societies later adopted this method of carrying on correspondence, by means of which over twenty-three million civilian messages were sent through the post between September 1939 and June 1945.
[p.192] The effects of the wartime ban on communications between enemy countries were thus mitigated, and the anxieties of millions of scattered human beings were set at rest (1).
PARAGRAPH 1. -- PRINCIPLE
1. ' Extent of the right to news '
This right only exists in regard to family news. That condition, which is essential will be readily understood, since it is not for the Convention, which is purely humanitarian in character, to deal with the forwarding of correspondence of any other type.
The expression "family news" should be taken as meaning all particulars, news, questions, information, etc. concerning the personal and family life of a person.
The right to give family news is accompanied by the right to receive it; it applies to members of a family i. e. to people who are related, or connected by marriage.
The right to give his family news of a personal nature and to receive personal news from them is one of the inalienable rights of man; it must be respected fully and without reservations. That is why the Diplomatic Conference of 1949, which proclaimed that right, rejected proposals that the Article should be placed in Part III, Section I, where its field of application would have been less wide. This right to family news belongs to the whole population of the countries engaged in the war, including those living in their own country (2).
2. ' Forwarding of family news '
The right of any person living in a country at war to give and receive family news lays an obligation on the belligerents not to put any obstacles in the way of such correspondence. The Convention goes even further and requires the Parties to the conflict to forward such correspondence "speedily and without undue delay." Delays due to the existence of a war obviously cannot be avoided; the provision therefore only refers to undue delay, or in other words delays which are not caused by material difficulties alone; the censorship must, for example, carry out their work promptly and give priority to the examination of correspondence of a personal nature.
[p.193] It will be observed that the clause does not make express provision for the forwarding of family correspondence by the most rapid means, viz. by air (3). Experience has shown, however, that in forwarding correspondence by ordinary mail insuperable obstacles are sometimes encountered; large-scale military operations and especially bombing from the air paralyse land communications and thus often make the rapid transmission of correspondence impossible. It is therefore to be hoped that belligerents will send family correspondence by air whenever possible.
PARAGRAPH 2. -- NEUTRAL INTERMEDIARY
Postal communications between belligerent countries are completely severed when the frontiers are closed but when a country is partially occupied the same forced silence is sometimes inflicted on families separated by the line of demarcation. The right to family news is thus in danger of becoming illusory in the very cases where it is most necessary. In order to provide a remedy for such a state of affairs, the Convention contains provisions by which the Parties to the conflict are required to apply to a neutral intermediary to decide in consultation the best means of ensuring that family news is transmitted.
As an example of such an intermediary the Convention refers expressly to the Central Information Agency, set up in a neutral country to receive and transmit to the authorities of their home country any information it can obtain concerning protected persons. The organization and duties of the Agency will be considered further on (4), but it should be noted here that the organization in question may be the same as the Central Prisoners of War Agency, which has rendered invaluable service during past wars.
In regard to the role of the neutral intermediary, the Article merely says that it is to decide in consultation with the States concerned how to ensure fulfilment of their obligations under the best possible conditions. The wording has been deliberately left extremely general, so that the Agency's action may be adapted as well as possible to the circumstances existing at the time. The intermediary will have the task, in collaboration with the transport services and censorship of the States concerned, of arranging the channels through which [p.194] correspondence is to be forwarded, choosing those which are safest and most rapid.
In carrying out this work the intermediary must be able to count on the support and co-operation of national agencies whose impartiality, organization and experience offer guarantees of the safe transmission of family news on national territory. The Diplomatic Conference decided to make express mention here of the National Red Cross Societies, in view of the great services which they had rendered in connection with the transmission of civilian messages during the Second World War.
Paragraph 2 is of the first importance to both national and international Red Cross organizations, because it will henceforth provide a solid legal basis for their humanitarian work, which in the past has rested solely on agreement with the belligerent powers.
PARAGRAPH 3. -- USE OF STANDARD FORMS
Pressure of circumstances and technical considerations may oblige belligerents to limit the number of letters and cards that each person is entitled to send and receive.
The last paragraph therefore deals with a special form of correspondence which guarantees a minimum right to correspondence; using standard forms containing twenty-five freely chosen words; States may limit the number of these forms dispatched to one each month; that is an extreme measure which could only be taken in exceptional circumstances. The limit envisaged in regard to the number of cards dispatched and the number of words represent an absolute minimum and belligerents must respect those limits under all circumstances. The clause lays down that the people concerned must be free to word the message as they wish, on the understanding, of course, that the news must be of a strictly family nature.
As in the case of the previous paragraph, this provision may, as has already been pointed out, be regarded as a formal endorsement of one of the most important successes achieved by the International Committee of the Red Cross, in collaboration with the National Red Cross Societies, during past wars. The essential points are as follows: a special form for exchanging family correspondence, designed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (Civilian Message Form No. 61), was adopted in agreement with the administrative authorities in each country by nearly all National Red Cross Societies. The name of the National Red Cross Society issuing the card, or that of the International Committee of the Red Cross, appears at the top. There are places left for a message of twenty-five words of family news and [p.195] for the names and addresses of the sender and addressee. The person who receives the message can write a reply of twenty-five words on the back of the card and return it to the original sender. It is forwarded through the National Red
Cross Societies via the Civilian Message Section of the Central Agency, an organization set up by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The arrangements for transmission provided for in paragraph 2, apply equally to the implementation of paragraph 3.
A question on which the Convention is silent is whether family messages can be sent free, as is the case, for example, with consignments sent to civilian internees and prisoners of war (5). The answer to this question must be in the negative: postage and the cost of sending messages between non-interned civilians must still be met by the sender.
Notes: (1) [(1) p.192] See ' Report of the International Committee of
the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World
War ', Vol. II, pp. 68 sqq; Jean-G. LOSSIER: ' De la
question des messages familiaux à celle de la protection
des civils ', Genève 1943;
(2) [(2) p.192] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949 ', Vol, II-A, pp. 710-711;
(3) [(1) p.193] In the draft Article concerning the right to
family news, which was approved by the XVIIth
International Red Cross Conference in 1948, the wording
adopted was "as rapidly as possible". The new wording:
"speedily and without undue delay" is less imperative;
(4) [(2) p.193] See Article 140;
(5) [(1) p.195] See Article 110, p. 458;