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 (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
. -- POSTING OF THE CONVENTION
AND OF REGULATIONS AND ORDERS CONCERNING PRISONERS
[p.243] The right to be informed in all circumstances of the regulations etc. pertaining to captivity corresponds to two cardinal principles of the Convention. The first is that the text of the Convention should be disseminated as widely as possible; the second is an essential right of man and might be expressed in the following terms: no one may be punished pursuant to legislation with which he has not had an opportunity to acquaint himself (1).
The right of prisoners to be informed is the basis of the right to make complaints; moreover, if prisoners are well informed, the general atmosphere of the camp is likely to be better and thus conducive to the willing acceptance of discipline.
The first paragraph of this Article corresponds to Article 84
of the 1929 Convention, which was included under the heading "Execution of the Convention". The second paragraph corresponds to Article 20
of the earlier Convention, under "Discipline".
PARAGRAPH 1. -- DISSEMINATION OF THE TEXT OF THE CONVENTION
1. ' First sentence. -- Posting in the camps '
The only express provision concerning the posting of the Convention refers to prisoner-of-war camps. The camp commander is nevertheless responsible for ensuring that prisoners of war working in labour detachments outside the camp are at all times informed of the provisions of the Convention. He may select the most appropriate means of doing so, for instance by circulating a text or, possibly, by posting it in the case of large labour detachments.
The number of copies posted will depend on the number of prisoners and the administrative organization of each camp; the essential consideration is that each prisoner of war must be able to acquaint himself with the text of the Convention.
The main objection raised against the compulsory posting of the Convention related to translation difficulties (2).
[p.244] The 1929 Convention made the situation still more difficult by stipulating that the text must be posted "in the native language of the prisoners of war"; the present Article refers merely to "the prisoners' own language", this being the official language of the prisoners' country of origin -- the language used in that country for official records and the publication of legislation. Where there is more than one official language in the country of origin, the Convention should, if possible, be posted in the language actually used by the prisoners concerned.
The detaining State is responsible for preparing the texts to be posted, but it would nevertheless be desirable that at the outset of hostilities, through the good offices of either the protecting power or the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Power on which prisoners depend should forward to the Detaining power the text of the Convention in the prisoners' own language. It is also advisable that these translations, which are considered as a means of disseminating the Convention, should be prepared in peace-time (3).
This obligation is mandatory. The 1929 Convention merely stated that the text should be posted "whenever possible"; consequently, at the beginning of the Second World War, the text of the Convention was not available in many camps, and certain camp commanders were not even aware of its existence.
The obligation is not so far-reaching in the case of special agreements: their "contents" must be posted but not necessarily the full text. They must nevertheless be posted in sufficient detail so as to include all the essential provisions of such agreements, giving prisoners accurate information on all matters concerning them.
2. ' Second sentence. -- Supply of copies to prisoners
without access to the copy posted '
This provision is for the benefit of sick or detained prisoners of war and those who are working on the land or in certain detachments, for although they are in special circumstances, they have the same right to be informed as other prisoners.
[p.245] PARAGRAPH 2. -- DISSEMINATION OF REGULATIONS AND ORDERS
1. ' First sentence. -- Posting and collective notices '
Notices and the like must obviously be issued in such a way that prisoners of war can understand them. A similar provision is to be found in Article 17, paragraph 6
, Article 105, paragraph 4
, and Article 107, paragraph 1
. It is therefore an important factor in the relationship between prisoners of war and the detaining State, and the latter is in fact responsible for ensuring that prisoners have understood the orders given.
The 1929 Convention made no provision for the posting of regulations and orders, or for the distribution of such texts to the prisoners, representative. The latter requirement serves a dual purpose: it will enable the prisoners' representative to explain to the prisoners the orders given by the Detaining Power, and will also give him an opportunity to make any necessary observations if the orders contain anything contrary to the Convention.
2. ' Second sentence. -- Individual communications '
May guards use a language other than that of the prisoners (their own, for instance) provided that the prisoners understand what they say? A case of this sort would be that of verbal commands which can be condensed into short phrases that are easy to remember, even in another language. This seems permissible provided that the prisoners actually understand the commands. For this purpose and in order to make themselves understood, guards should learn a few phrases in the prisoners' language or, better still, an interpreter should be called upon whenever possible.
* (1) [(1) p.243] The first of these principles is set forth in
Article 127; the second is implicitly referred to in
Article 100, for instance;
(2) [(2) p.243] See ' Final Record of the Diplomatic
Conference of Geneva of 1949 ', Vol. II-A, p. 265;
(3) [(1) p.244] In fact Article 128 provides that States shall
communicate to one another, either through the Swiss
Federal Council or, during hostilities, through the
Protecting Powers, the official translations of the
Convention. In war-time, this may also be done through the
International Committee of the Red Cross, which has a
collection of all the translations prepared by