The adoption of the four 1949 Geneva Conventions marked the beginning of a new era for the ICRC in its role as promoter and guardian of international humanitarian law (IHL). In its legal department, a team of advisers worked under IHL pioneer and expert Jean Pictet (1914-2002). They supported the ratification, implementation and dissemination of the new Geneva Conventions, wrote the ICRC Commentaries on the treaties, and advised or took part in the ICRC’s operational activities. Among them was Jean de Preux (1920–2012). A largely unknown ICRC figure, he worked both as a legal adviser at the organization’s headquarters and as a delegate in Vietnam, Hungary, Tunisia/Algeria and Congo. This portrait retraces the milestones of his 35 year-long career in the ICRC, as a practitioner of both humanitarian law and action.
Born in the Swiss canton of Valais in 1920, a region to which he remained very much attached throughout his life, Jean de Preux studied law and political science at the University of Lausanne. In 1949, he defended his PhD in law with a thesis on veto power under the Charter of the United Nations. A career as a lawyer or notary in Valais, like his father, could certainly have been an option. But his interest for international law and cooperation led him to take a different path. After his studies, he joined the International Center for Relief to Civilian Populations as a secretary. Based in Geneva, the Center had taken over from the Joint Relief Commission, co-piloted by the ICRC and the League of Red Cross Societies (now International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) during WW2. From 1946 to 1951, it centralized the distribution of food, clothing and drugs to civilian populations, mandated by different humanitarian and international organizations. As a jurist, Jean de Preux could not have missed the historical event unfolding in Geneva during this period: the 1949 Diplomatic Conference that led to the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions, the cornerstone of modern international humanitarian law. From the public gallery, he observed sessions of the Conference. On the other side stood the members of the ICRC delegation — his future colleagues — led by Jean Pictet.
Joining Pictet’s team: Jean de Preux and the Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention
After the International Centre for Relief to Civilian Populations closed, Jean de Preux was recruited to join the ICRC’s legal department on August 1st, 1951. His name first appeared in the Committee’s minutes of meetings in June of the same year, as he presented its members with the conclusions of a study on legal assistance to refugees and stateless persons. The period was uncertain in the ICRC, as resources had dwindled after the war. Nevertheless, among the priorities was the preparation of the legal commentaries on the newly adopted Geneva Conventions. The project was already underway when de Preux arrived, with Jean Pictet and his right-hand man Claude Pilloud at the helm. Pictet had completed the Commentary on the First Geneva Convention and a team of ICRC legal advisers would continue the work under his direction. Based on the drafting history of the Conventions and prior practice, the commentaries were meant to provide those implementing the new treaties with the necessary interpretative guidance. They would follow the structure of the Conventions, providing an article-by-article analysis of each of their provisions. In this entreprise, Pictet was himself walking in the footsteps of Committee member and lawyer Paul Des Gouttes (1869-1943), who had published a Commentary on the 1929 Convention for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in armies in the field in 1930.
Jean de Preux was put in charge of researching and writing the Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, the Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war which had supplanted the 1929 Convention of the same name. As his introduction to the Commentary would explain, the 1929 Convention needed revision “because of changes in the conduct and the consequences of war and even in human living conditions. In particular, it had become necessary to widen the scope of the term ‘prisoners of war’ so as to include members of armed forces following capitulation and in order to avoid the arbitrary loss of that status at any given moment; there was also a need for stricter regulations governing captivity, in view of the increase in work by prisoners of war, assistance received by them or judicial proceedings brought against them.” The 143 articles of the revised Convention made one thing clear for him: “the time for declarations of principle [was] past; the 1929 Convention [had shown] the advantages to be gained from detailed provisions.”
Updating the ICRC Commentaries on the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols
The ICRC Commentaries published in the 1950s and 1980s remain a major reference for the application and interpretation of the treaties. But, since their publication, the Conventions and their Additional Protocols have been put to the test. To capture new developments in law and practice and provide up-to-date interpretations, the ICRC has embarked on a major project to update the Commentaries.
Compare Jean de Preux’s Commentary with its 21st century successor – the updated ICRC Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention (2020) – by navigating the ICRC IHL treaty database.
In the ICRC headquarters, Jean de Preux shared an office with Oscar Uhler, the author of a well-received thesis on the law of occupation who had been recruited to work on the Commentary on the Fourth Geneva Convention. His research began in the ICRC’s archives and library. There he had access to the preparatory works of the revised Geneva Conventions and the literature of reference of the time. His Commentary’s bibliography would thus include the Commentary on the 1929 Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war by Gustav Rasmussen and numerous theses by French-, German- and English-speaking experts on war captivity. He could also rely on the direct knowledge and experience of the drafters of the Convention working alongside him.
Thorny questions related to the Commentaries would be brought up to the meetings of the ICRC legal commission. For the Third Geneva Convention, the commentary on article 118 on ‘Release and repatriation’ was the most debated. The Convention had taken center stage in the public discourse on the repatriation of prisoners of war at the end of the Korean War, despite it not being legally applicable (as none of the Parties to the conflict had ratified it at the time of the war). When a certain number of prisoners of war refused repatriation, both sides of the conflict put forward diverging interpretations of the legality of their forced return, a situation not directly addressed in the Convention. The issue would occupy the legal commission’s meetings in the spring of 1954. Opposed to the use of force to repatriate prisoners of war, ICRC legal advisers remained preoccupied by the risk that such prisoners could be pressured into refusing repatriation. Eventually, the 1958 Commentary provided for an exception to the obligation to repatriate prisoners of war in cases of “serious reasons for fearing that a prisoner of war who is himself opposed to being repatriated may, after his repatriation, be the subject of unjust measures affecting his life or liberty (…).”
Upon its publication in 1958, the French edition of the Commentary was sent out to States, National Societies of the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and selected organizations, academics and experts. The English translation followed in 1960. A series of thank you notes can still be found in the ICRC archives, with Sir Hersch Lauterpacht notably writing that “these Commentaries are invaluable, and [he] hope[s] to use them in due course for the new edition of the second volume of Oppenheim’s International Law.”
In the published volume, Jean de Preux was recognized as the main drafter of the Commentary, composed under the general editorship of Jean Pictet, with contributions by Frédéric Siordet, Claude Pilloud, René-Jean Wilhelm, Oscar Uhler, and Jean-Pierre Schoenholzer. Like Jean de Preux, the different writers of the ICRC 1950s Commentaries on the Geneva Conventions remain little known. The paternity of the texts is commonly attributed to Pictet, who certainly spearheaded the project but was far from being the only author. Oscar Uhler noted in a letter to Pictet his disappointment not to see the commentary on each article attributed to its specific author. To which Pictet replied by underlining the collaborative nature of the work. “So many people have worked on these different parts that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish their original author,” he wrote back .
Jean de Preux, ICRC delegate in Vietnam (1955-1956), Hungary (1956), Algeria (1958) and Congo (1961-1962)
On May 5th, 1955, the minutes of meeting of the legal commission noted that current deadlines would become difficult to meet, as the department was temporarily losing one of its collaborators: Mr. de Preux was headed for a mission in Vietnam. This was his first position abroad as an ICRC delegate. In Vietnam, the July 1954 cease-fire had been followed by an important movement of population towards the south of the country. Based in Saigon for a year, Jean de Preux oversaw the distribution of relief to the refugees, working in collaboration with UNICEF. He also led the creation of a physical rehabilitation center for the war wounded. He is below photographed during a delivery of medical supplies to Chy-Lang hospital.
The next year, Jean de Preux took part in the ICRC’s action in Hungary during the uprising. In the last days of October 1956, he joined a convoy from the Austrian Red Cross bringing relief from Vienna to Budapest. Still in town on November 4th, he was awakened by the sound of gunfire: Soviet tanks had rolled into Budapest to crush the uprising. A week later, he was able to negotiate with the Soviet military the right for Red Cross relief convoys to enter Budapest again; the ICRC launched its largest relief operation since the end of WWII. However, his attempts to bring up the respect of the Geneva Conventions with his Soviet military liaison officer remained fruitless.
Jean de Preux’s next mission took place in Tunisia and Algeria in 1958, in the middle of the Algerian war (1954-1962). The conflict opposing the French army to the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) was characterized by asymmetric, underground warfare and a violent repression. For the ICRC, conducting its humanitarian mission in this context was a tough balancing act. The organization faced new challenges that would become characteristic of insurrectionary wars: a colonial government’s reluctance to accept its services on “its own soil”, denial an armed conflict was ongoing, and negotiations with an insurrectionary armed group. The highly mediatized context also meant that ICRC delegates were under close watch and faced a significant risk of seeing their action instrumentalized by the Parties to the conflict. In 1958, insurrectionary leaders had set up a military base in Tunisia near Sakiet Sidi Youssef. On January 11, an ambush killed fifteen French soldiers on the Algerian-Tunisian border, and four were taken prisoners. In January 1958, Jean de Preux, along with ICRC delegate Georg Hoffmann, obtained for the first time the authorization to visit the four prisoners held by the insurrectionists.
The visit was highly unconventional, likely unprecedented, as it took place without the authorization of the French authorities. This ‘semi-clandestine’ border crossing, as Françoise Perret and François Bugnion explain, was a risk the ICRC was willing to take given its important humanitarian purpose and the political context. The French authorities would certainly have refused the ICRC’s offer of service since it meant sending delegates to Algerian territory under FLN control. After negotiations, the prisoners were released in October and turned over to ICRC delegates at the headquarters of the Tunisian Red Crescent Society. The ICRC would remain in contact with the FLN in later months, eventually securing the release of forty-five prisoners by the end of 1959.
Jean de Preux’s next assignment as a delegate took place in the Republic of Congo, where he arrived in February 1961. The Katanga state had proclaimed its independence in 1960, its armed forces supported by foreign mercenaries, and a United Nations peacekeeping force was deployed in response. The ICRC delegation, led by Claude Pilloud, was composed of Jean de Preux, Georg Hoffmann, Georges Olivet, Sonia Baumann and Jeanne Egger. First hired as a secretary, the latter would go on to become the first woman to have a career as an ICRC delegate. The delegation’s activities included medical assistance, visits to detainees, assistance to refugees and a tracing service to reconnect people separated by the hostilities. Not all initiatives were welcome; Jean de Preux’s trip to the South Kasaï region on March 29, an attempt to visit political detainees, had to be aborted.
Jean de Preux came back to Geneva for a debriefing in June 1961 before taking his position as the new head of the delegation in Leopoldville (Kinshasa today). In front of the ICRC president, he underlined the overwhelming medical needs and the confusion caused by the fractured political situation. When the hostilities escalated in the fall, he and his colleague Georg Hoffmann were able to visit the detainees on both sides. At the time, reported violations of the Geneva Conventions by the UN peacekeeping troops against refugees and medical personnel particularly worried the ICRC. And, on December 13th, Georges Olivet – Jean de Preux’s colleague based in Elisabethville (Lubumbashi today) – went missing. His remains, alongside those of two volunteers of the Red Cross society based in Katanga, were found ten days later. An international investigation commission concluded that, though their shooter(s) could not be precisely identified, strong evidence pointed toward the responsibility of soldiers from the UN peacekeeping forces.
After the tragedy, Jean de Preux and delegate Geoffrey Senn worked to pursue the ICRC’s humanitarian action. They negotiated truces to bring relief to the civilian population, evacuate non-combatants, and allow the burial of the dead. When the hostilities slowed down, they resumed visits to detainees held by both sides. In Leopoldville, Jean de Preux visited civilians and police officers from Katanga detained by the UN forces. His legal background supported his case against the planned transfer of the detainees to the Congolese forces. He reminded the UN forces of art. 12 of the Third Geneva Convention and article 45 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which respectively stipulate that prisoners of war and civilian detainees may be transferred by the Detaining Power to a Power party to the Convention after the Detaining Power has satisfied itself of the willingness and ability of that Power to apply the Convention. The ICRC eventually secured the release of all remaining detainees on both sides on January 15th, 1962. The same year, Jean de Preux returned to the ICRC headquarters in Geneva. He would be sent to Congo again in 1967, his last mission, to help secure the release of mercenaries that had taken part in an attempted coup against President Mobutu.
“It is foolish for anyone to seek to be wise in isolation”: a later career dedicated to the development and dissemination of international humanitarian law
Jean de Preux had already published in 1955 an article on the dissemination of IHL in the pages of the International Review of the Red Cross. During the 1970s and 80s this issue became a major focus of his work. In 1970, he warned that: “the injunctions embodied in the Geneva Conventions must not be looked upon as a jewel in a case, to be worn on gala occasions and the rest of the time locked up in the safe. Instead, for those who are called upon to observe them, they must become ‘everyday wear’.” His writing style, at the same time straightforward and quite figurative, made good use of comparisons and metaphors to explain legal provisions to the non-initiated. Two unpublished studies on the role of human rights law in wartime written by his hand, dated 1970 and 1974, can be found in the ICRC archives. He reflected on the current developments in IHL and the human rights regime, showing a particular concern for the technological evolutions of means of combat and the arms race of the time.
He was involved in the drafting process of the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions. A member of the ICRC delegation to the 1974-1977 Diplomatic Conference, he represented the ICRC in Commission III where he introduced the organization’s draft articles 33 to 41 for Protocol I and 20 to 23 for Protocol II. After the adoption of the Additional Protocols, he summarized the achievements of the new treaties for the readers of the International Review of the Red Cross. Originally in French, his article was re-published in English in 1997. He is also cited as a writer of the ICRC Commentary on the Additional Protocols, directed this time by Claude Pilloud. French-speaking readers will be able to hear him present the protection granted by Hague Law and the Additional Protocols to civilians in a 1982 recording (part I and II).
Jean de Preux retired in 1985, after a career of 35 years in the ICRC. Then President Alexandre Hay commended his dedication in front of the ICRC Assembly and remembered his work on the Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention: “Isn’t this Third Convention that brought comfort to so many soldiers, so many families, the best of yourself, the product of your heart and mind?”. Facetious, he noted that he had taken the precaution to remove all adjectives from his speech, as a tip of the hat to Jean de Preux’s “ideal as a lawyer.”
After his retirement, Jean de Preux remained a member of the ICRC legal commission and continued to write on international humanitarian law. From 1985 to 1989, he published in the International Review of the Red Cross a series of nine synopses on specific IHL issues, from the role of protecting powers to the respect for the human being in the Geneva Conventions. Each text would present the provisions from different international treaties related to the issue at hand. The synopses were published together in a booklet in 1993. In the preface, Jean de Preux used yet another metaphor: “building roads is all well and good. But setting up signs and signals so that everyone can use them is another matter. Such is the purpose of these synopses.” This would be his last publication. When he passed away on Christmas Eve 2012, the ICRC announcement said a final farewell to an ‘ICRC legend’.
Jean de Preux’s writings
Le droit de veto dans la Charte des Nations Unies. Paris : Bellenand, 1949.
Diffusion des Conventions de Genève de 1949. Genève : CICR, 1955.
Les Conventions de Genève du 12 août 1949. III : La Convention de Genève III relative au traitement des prisonniers de guerre : commentaire / par Jean de Preux ; sous la dir. de Jean S. Pictet, avec le concours de Frédéric Siordet, Claude Pilloud, René-Jean Wilhelm, Oscar Uhler, Jean-Pierre Schoenholzer et Henri Coursier, 1958.
The Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949. III: Geneva Convention III relative to the treatment of prisoners of war: Commentary / by Jean de Preux; under the general editorship of Jean S. Pictet; with contributions by Frédéric Siordet, Claude Pilloud, René-Jean Wilhelm, Oscar Uhler, Jean-Pierre Schoenholzer and Henri Coursier; translated by A. P. de Heney, 1960.
Commentaire des protocoles additionnels du 8 juin 1977 aux Conventions de Genève du 12 août 1949 / Claude Pilloud … [et al.]. Genève: CICR, Nijhoff, 1986.
Commentary on the Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 / Claude Pilloud… [et al.]. Geneva: ICRC, Nijhoff, 1987.
International humanitarian law: synopses. Geneva : ICRC, 1993.
Droit international humanitaire : textes de synthèse. Genève : CICR, 1993.
Derecho internacional humanitario : textos de sintesis. Ginebra : CICR, 1993.
Articles and book chapters
L’homme de confiance des prisonniers de guerre. Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, No. 414, juin 1953.
Etudes sur la troisième Convention de Genève de 1949 : prisonniers de guerre. Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, No. 421, janvier 1954.
What progress is being made in dissemination of knowledge of the Geneva Conventions? International Review of the Red Cross, No. 85, April 1968.
Connaissance des Conventions de Genève. Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, No. 619, juillet 1970.
Knowledge of the Geneva Conventions. International Review of the Red Cross, No. 112, July 1970.
Protection du sauvetage maritime côtier. Etudes and essais sur le droit international humanitaire et sur les principes de la Croix-Rouge en l’honneur de Jean Pictet. Genève : CICR ; La Haye : Nijhoff, 1984.
Les Conventions de Genève et la réciprocité. Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, No. 751, janvier 1985.
The Geneva Conventions and reciprocity. International Review of the Red Cross, No. 244, March 1985.
Les Protocoles additionnels aux Conventions de Genève. Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, No. 765, mai-juin 1987.
The Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions. International Review of the Red Cross, No. 320, October 1997 (translation of the 1987 article originally published in French).
Access here Jean de Preux’s complete bibliography in the ICRC Library catalogue.
The updated ICRC Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention: A new tool to protect prisoners of war in the twenty-first century / J. Arman, J.-M. Henckaerts, H. Hiemstra and K. Krotiuk. International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 102, no. 913, 2020.
Bringing the Commentaries on the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols into the twenty-first century / Jean-Marie Henckaerts. International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 94, no. 888, Winter 2012.
Between insurgents and government: The International Committee of the Red Cross’s action in the Algerian war (1954-1962) / Françoise Perret and François Bugnion. International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, no. 883, September 2011.
History of the International Committee of the Red Cross. 4: From Budapest to Saigon: 1956-1965 / Françoise Perret and François Bugnion. Geneva: ICRC, 2018.
History of the International Committee of the Red Cross. 3: From Yalta to Dien Bien Phu: 1945 to 1955 / Catherine Rey-Schyrr, Geneva: ICRC, 2017.
Hungarian October: between Red Cross and red flag: the 1956 action of the International Committee of the Red Cross / Isabelle Vonèche Cardia. Geneva: ICRC, 1999.
 ICRC oral history, interview of Jean de Preux, 3 and 6 November 1992 (internal recording V-S-20056-A-01).
 The Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949. III: Geneva Convention III relative to the treatment of prisoners of war: Commentary / by Jean de Preux; under the general editorship of Jean S. Pictet; with contributions by Frédéric Siordet, Claude Pilloud, René-Jean Wilhelm, Oscar Uhler, Jean-Pierre Schoenholzer and Henri Coursier; translated by A. P. de Heney, 1960, p. 5-6.
 Idem, p. 9.
 A CICR, B AG 059-004.10, minutes of meetings of the legal commission.
 Commentary on article 118 ‘Release and repatriation’ of the Third Geneva Convention. The Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949. III: Geneva Convention III relative to the treatment of prisoners of war: Commentary / by Jean de Preux; under the general editorship of Jean S. Pictet; with contributions by Frédéric Siordet, Claude Pilloud, René-Jean Wilhelm, Oscar Uhler, Jean-Pierre Schönholzer and Henri Coursier; translated by A. P. de Heney, 1960.
 A CICR, B AG 022 032, Commentary on the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war of 12 August 1949 (01.10.1958-06.06.1961).
 A CICR, B AG 022 033, letter from O. Uhler to J. Pictet dated September 4, 1956 and reply from J. Pictet to O. Uhler dated September 14, 1956.
 A CICR, B AG 059-004, 1951-1955, minutes of meeting of the legal commission.
 A CICR, minutes of meeting, plenary session of the Committee, April 5, 1956.
 A CICR, minutes of meeting, plenary session of the Committee, February 6, 1958.
 Between insurgents and government: the International Committee of the Red Cross’s action in the Algerian war (1954-1962) / Françoise Perret and François Bugnion. International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, no. 883, September 2011, p. 725-727.
 A CICR, B AG 251 (37), mission report from Jean de Preux (13.04.1961).
 A CICR, Conseil de présidence, séance du jeudi 22 juin 1961.
 A CICR, B AG 251 (229), commission of inquiry into the death of Red Cross workers in Elisabethville, 8 June 1962. See also History of the International Committee of the Red Cross. 4: From Budapest to Saigon: 1956-1965 / Françoise Perret, François Bugnion. Geneva: ICRC, 2018, p. 265-266.
 History of the International Committee of the Red Cross. 4: From Budapest to Saigon: 1956-1965 / Françoise Perret, François Bugnion. Geneva: ICRC, 2018, p. 266.
 To quote the opening line of his 1970 article on the importance of the dissemination of the Geneva Conventions. Knowledge of the Geneva Conventions / Jean de Preux. International Review of the Red Cross, No. 112, July 1970, p. 365.
 A CICR, B AG 059-158. ‘Droits de l’homme ; un protocole pour quelle guerre ?’ : 2 études de Jean de Preux (1970-1974).
 A CICR, B RH 1991.000-186. Retraite de Jean de Preux : remerciements et vœux du Président (prononcés par M. Alexandre Hay, Président, à l’occasion de l’Assemblée du 27 juin 1985).