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What does humanitarian law say with regard to the restoration of family links?


Extract from ICRC publication International humanitarian law: answers to your questions

As a consequence of armed conflict, prisoners of war and civilian internees are separated from their loved ones, families are split up and people go missing. The Geneva Conventions and Protocol I contain a number of provisions for the protection of these victims. They apply in the event of international armed conflicts and empower the ICRC to carry out the following tasks:

1) Forwarding family messages and other information (Art. 25, Fourth Convention). This includes:

  • receiving and registering prisoner-of-war capture cards and civilian internment cards, the duplicates of these cards being sent to the captives families;

  • forwarding mail between people deprived of their freedom and their families;

  • forwarding family news (Red Cross messages) between separated members of a family when normal postal channels are unreliable;

  • receiving and transmitting death notices.

More generally, the ICRCs Central Tracing Agency acts as an intermediary between the parties to the conflict or, more accurately, between their national information bureaux (see opposite) for the transmission of information on people protected by humanitarian law.

2) Inquiring into the whereabouts of missing persons (Art. 33, Protocol I; and Art. 26, Fourth Convention).

3) Reuniting dispersed families (See Art. 74, Protocol I; and Art. 26, Fourth Convention). 

The ICRC first did this type of work during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Acting as an intermediary, its tracing agency in Basle set about restoring contact between prisoners of war and their families, starting with the exchange of lists of wounded persons between the belligerents. Since then, the ICRCs Central Tracing Agency has considerably developed its activities.    

National information bureaux 

The Third Geneva Convention (Art. 122) states that upon the outbreak of hostilities each neutral or belligerent power that has enemy nationals on its territory must set up an official information bureau for the prisoners of war there. Each belligerent power must inform its own information bureau of all prisoners captured by its forces and provide the bureau with every available detail concerning the identity of these prisoners, so that their next-of-kin can be advised as quickly as possible. If there is no such bureau, as is often the case in conflicts, the ICRC itself undertakes to gather information on people protected by the Geneva Conventions. 

Central Tracing Agency  

A Central Prisoners of War Information Agency shall be created in a neutral country. The International Committee of the Red Cross shall, if it deems necessary, propose to the Powers concerned the organization of such an Agency. The function of the Agency shall be to collect all the information it may obtain through official or private channels respecting prisoners of war, and to transmit it as quickly as possible to the coun try of origin of the prisoners of war or to the Power on which they depend (...). (Art. 123, Third Convention)

Dispersed families  

Each Party to the conflict shall facilitate enquiries made by members of families dispersed owing to the war, with the object of renewing contact with one another and of meeting, if possible (...). (Art. 26, Fourth Convention

Extract from ICRC publication International humanitarian law: answers to your questions