Since 1955 the ICRC has been managing the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Arolsen, Germany. The purely humanitarian mandate under which the ITS works to help the former victims of the Nazi regime is derived from the 1955 Bonn Agreements, which set up the International Commission for the International Tracing Service, which today has 11 member States (Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxe mbourg, Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom, United States).
The ITS's archives concern the Germans and non-Germans who were held in Nazi concentration and labour camps as well as non-Germans who had to flee their homes because of the Second World War. The central archive houses over 50 million file cards relating to more than 17.5 million civilians persecuted by the Nazis. Other documents containing personal information on the victims take up over 25,000 metres of shelf space.
At its 1998 annual meeting held in London, the International Commission for the ITS approved the principle of opening the ITS archives for historical research, though it did not fix a legal framework or lay down practical procedures for this. Confronted as they are with problems caused by the diversity between the different member countries in terms of legislation on protection of personal data, the Commission's member States have not yet fully agreed on a means of reconciling the desirability of historical research with the need to protect the privacy of the former victims.
Various sub-commissions and intergovernmental groups of experts, including some in which the ICRC and the ITS have taken part, have conferred in recent years about creating a new legal framework that would determine – given the very sensitive nature of the information collected within the ITS – where, how and for whose benefit this new activity should be carried out.
At the International Commission's May 2005 meeting, the United States proposed that each member State receive a digitized copy of the ITS's entire collection of documents and then make it available to researchers in accordance with its own national legislation.
Since 1998 the ICRC and the ITS have had very clear positions. The ICRC recognizes the historical value of the IT S archives. It also recognizes that historical research into such a traumatic subject is viewed by many former victims as significant in humanitarian terms. The ICRC and the ITS are in favour of these archives being opened to researchers and strongly urge the International Commission for the ITS to take the decisions needed for practical implementation.
It is up to the member States of the International Commission, and to them alone, to determine whether to make digitized copies of the entire archives and, if so, who should have access to those copies. It is also up to the member States to decide on what safeguards should be furnished to both the ICRC and the ITS regarding possible claims for damages resulting from wrongful use of the data provided in this way.
An intergovernmental group of experts, chaired by the Netherlands, met in Luxembourg on 21-22 February last. It is the hope of the ICRC and the ITS that this group will make a proposal acceptable to all member States of the International Commission and that unanimously accepted research will then begin without delay.
In 2005, the ITS received 150,828 requests for documentation from former victims or their families, and issued 226,535 replies. Over the past two years, the ITS has issued over 950,000 certificates to enable people subjected to forced labour under the Nazis to obtain compensation.