The Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was adopted in Geneva on July 27th 1929. It was later revised alongside the pre-dating Convention protecting the war wounded and remains in force today as the third of the four 1949 Geneva Conventions. In 1929, the adoption of this first multilateral treaty entirely dedicated to the protection of prisoners of war (POW) filled an important gap in the international legal framework and crystallized a major shift in the way prisoners of war were perceived, fully recognizing them as ‘humanitarian subjects.’
The 1929 Geneva Convention found its roots in the traumatizing experience of WWI captivity. Almost ten million people were imprisoned or interned at some point during the conflict, many facing brutalization and mistreatment. But the 1929 Convention was also a direct consequence of the ICRC’s large-scale humanitarian action during WWI in favor of POWs. The measures of protection and assistance it introduced during the conflict became part of international humanitarian law (IHL) in 1929 and have oriented its action ever since. Following the recent launch of the updated ICRC Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention, we’re travelling back in time to retrace the parallel development of the ICRC’s action and IHL for prisoners of war – as reflected in the ICRC Library’s collections.
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Back to the Beginning: The Origin of the ICRC’s Action for Prisoners of War
Humanitarian relief to persons deprived of their liberty has been a cornerstone of the ICRC’s action for decades and decades. When it was first founded in 1863 however, the Committee was initially reluctant to undertake such a task. It feared it would compromise its initial mission and wished to focus on the fate of the war wounded. In its early years of activity, the Committee thus distinguished between able-bodied and injured or sick prisoners of war. This distinction soon had to be reconsidered, once the Committee’s plans were faced with the reality of war. Not only were the health conditions of prisoners difficult to determine, but the Committee also grew extremely concerned with the psychological sufferings of captives, what would soon be known as ‘barbed-wire disease’.
The first exception was made in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war. The ICRC founded a correspondence and information agency for prisoners – whether sick, wounded, or able-bodied – on the basis of a resolution adopted at the International Conference of the Red Cross in 1869. Set in Basel, this agency was tasked with the transmission of all communications relating to POWs and the expedition of relief to the camps. Under the name ‘Agence de Bâle’ (Basel Agency), this first ancestor of the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency also allowed prisoners to correspond with their families. The Basel Agency chronicled its activities in a series of twenty reports, published between August 1970 and May 1871. Still, the Committee insisted in a circular to National Societies of the International Movement of the Red Cross (later shortened as ‘the Movement’ in this blogpost) that it had only extended its action to all able-bodied POWs because it had been unable to single out injured and sick prisoners.
The situation evolved with the adoption of the Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land at the end of the 1899 Hague Peace Conference. Articles 14 and 15 of the Convention compelled belligerents to set up information offices for POWs, to let the other parties know who had fallen into their hands, and to accept the distribution of relief to POW camps by aid societies. National Societies of the Movement saw an opening here: there was a legal basis for relief action for POWs. Extending Red Cross humanitarian action to POWs was at the heart of the discussions of the 1902 and 1907 International Conferences. Finally, the 1912 Conference endorsed this development with a resolution. It was decided that the ICRC would in wartime manage an agency in charge of the transmission of information and relief for POWs – like the one established in Basel in 1870. At the time, it seemed to be the logical conclusion of the discussions of the past decade, rather than a revolution in the Movement’s mandate. The 1912 resolution was first implemented during the Balkan War of 1912-1913 with the creation of the Belgrade Agency. But it was truly during WWI that it would revolutionize the ICRC’s action and open the door to the revision of the international legal framework for the treatment of POWs.
“The Heart of Europe”: ICRC action for Prisoners of War during WWI
In 1914, as the world went to war, the ICRC opened the Agence Internationale des prisonniers de guerre (International Prisoners of War Agency) – which the author Stefan Zweig would later describe as “the heart of Europe”. For the duration of the conflict, the Agency acted as a neutral intermediary between belligerents for the transmission of information on POWs and recorded every piece of information it could collect on the victims of the hostilities. Its collaborators investigated the fate of missing soldiers on behalf of their families. Every week, the Agency published its Nouvelles to share information about its activities and how to use its services: how to send a tracing request for someone who had gone missing, how to send a parcel to a prisoner, how to request the repatriation of an injured prisoner. The publication of the Nouvelles was then an important part of the ICRC’s public communication strategy. The organization took to heart its role as a neutral intermediary not only in the transmission of information between belligerents, but also in the communication of reliable information to civil society, in a climate marked by propaganda and disinformation.
ICRC delegates delivering relief and organizing the transmission of correspondence to POW camps started to enquire about the prisoners’ conditions of detention. The ICRC advocated for their rights through diplomatic channels and negotiated with the belligerents to be allowed to visit the camps. From 1915 to 1918, its delegates visited 534 POW camps, mainly in Europe but also in North Africa and Asia. Reports of those visits were published at the time as a source of information on POWs’ fate untainted by war propaganda. Concerned with the psychological consequences of prolonged captivity, the ICRC requested the repatriation of long-term prisoners of war, even when they were in good physical health. As the scale, duration and intensity of the war turned captivity into a global phenomenon, the days of restricting its humanitarian action to sick and injured prisoners were long gone. For further reading, see our research guide on the ICRC during WWI.
The Path to the 1929 Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War
The pre-war norms related to the treatment of POWs were continuously violated during WWI, with belligerents justifying mistreatments as reprisals for alleged violations by their opponent. The treatment of POWs became a central element of war propaganda. The need for a more effective protection was acute. At the end of the war, the ICRC set in motion the process leading the 1929 Convention. In 1921, it brought the issue to the forefront at the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which reunited representatives of State parties to the Geneva Conventions and members of the Movement: couldn’t the agreements concluded late in the conflict between belligerents  be capitalized on to develop a multilateral convention harmonizing the treatment and repatriation of POWs in future conflicts?
Two years later the ICRC submitted to the next International Conference a draft project of a Convention relative to the treatment of POWs. If a few of its original propositions – like a maximum time of two years in captivity – were deemed unrealistic, the Swiss authorities accepted to convene a diplomatic conference to adopt a revised version of the ICRC’s draft Convention. The Conference opened in Geneva on July 1. On July 27 1929, the Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was adopted.
The 1929 Convention did not run counter to the principles for the treatment of POWs set in the 1899 and 1907 Hague Treaties, but it introduced crucial new provisions and mechanisms for compliance. Most notably, it prohibited reprisals and collective penalties, allowed prisoners the right to choose their representatives, and, recognizing the role played by protecting powers during WWI, introduced a form of neutral oversight of the treatments of POWs. The ICRC’s action during WWI was formally recognized, and not only because its right to offer its humanitarian services was included in the treaty. The adoption of an article on the organization of a “Central Agency of information regarding prisoners of war” in a neutral country was indeed a direct consequence of the immense humanitarian task accomplished by the Agency during the WW1.
As Lindsay Cameron and Neville Wylie argue , the adoption of the 1929 Convention reflected an important evolution in the conception of the prisoner of war. From a ‘disarmed combatant’ whose treatment was to be based on martial values and military honor, he became a ‘humanitarian subject’, a victim of the conflict worthy of a protected status like the one granted to the war wounded. Arguing for the repatriation of able-bodied prisoners, for their right to communicate with their families, and for the prohibition of reprisals, the ICRC had pathed the way to this new idea during WWI.
ICRC Action for Prisoners of War after 1929
There was hope that the 1929 Convention would remain “buried in the dark corners of chancery offices and libraries”, as ICRC member Georges Werner concluded.  But war broke out In September 1939, and the ICRC opened without delay the ‘Agence centrale des prisonniers de guerre’ (Central Prisoners of War Agency). The mandate of this Agency followed the framework developed during WWI, now recognized in international law. The Agency also resumed the publication of its Nouvelles: nearly 1’300 pages chronicle its activities between 1940 and 1947. But this time the journal served the Agency’s internal communication, rather than being distributed to a wider audience.
Alongside the work of its Agency, the ICRC set up major relief campaigns for POWs during WWII. The logistical challenges of this action are presented in a 1943 publication, which illustrated the journey of the packages shipped to camps. The Committee also founded an Intellectual Relief Service, which sent prisoners all kinds of books – adventure novels, study books, newspapers and magazines, prayer books – as well as board games and musical instruments. Although it had not been directly active in intellectual relief during WWI, the ICRC had recognized the benefits of this type of action to lessen the sufferings of POWs and had included the right to intellectual assistance in its draft of the future 1929 Convention. For further reading, see our research guide on the ICRC during WWII.
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The ICRC’s Agency for prisoners of war never officially closed its doors at the end of WWII. On top of dealing with the humanitarian fallout of the conflict, such as helping repatriate former POWs, it soon became involved in a succession of new contexts. Similar to the 1929 Convention, the 1949 Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War provides a basis for the functioning of the Central Prisoners of War Information Agency.  Its name was changed to ‘Central Tracing Agency’ in 1960 to reflect the evolution of its mandate, now covering assistance not only to POWs, but also to displaced populations, and its engagement in tracing activities , and reconnecting separated family members in conflict zones. At the same time as the Agency diversified its activities, the ICRC continued to develop its action for persons deprived of their liberty in conflict situations. Today its detention related activities aim to preserve the life and dignity of detainees and ensure the respect of international laws and minimum standards. They focus on ending and preventing summary executions, forced disappearances, torture and ill-treatments, safeguarding the physical and psychological integrity of detainees, allowing them to stay in touch with their relatives and supporting their reintegration. 
Discover a selection of the ICRC audiovisual archives on prisoners of war.
The Central Tracing Agency of the International Committee of the Red Cross: [activities of the ICRC for the alleviation of the mental suffering of war victims] / Gradimir Djurovic. Genève : Institut Henry Dunant, 1981.
La Croix-Rouge et les prisonniers de guerre : l’émergence d’une préoccupation (1863 – 1912) / Bernard Mercier. Genève: B. Mercier, 1991.
The International Committee of the Red Cross: identifying the dead and tracing missing persons, a historical perspective / Isabelle Vonèche Cardia. Chapter in Violence, statistics and the politics of accounting for the dead, Cham [etc.]: Springer, 2016.
Protecting people deprived of their liberty / ICRC, 2016.
The Impact of World War I on the Law Governing the Treatment of Prisoners of War and the Making of a Humanitarian Subject / Neville Wylie and Lindsey Cameron. The European Journal of International Law, Vol. 29, no. 4, 2018, p. 1327-1350.
 Le cœur de l’Europe : une visite à la Croix-Rouge internationale de Genève / Stefan Zweig (1918)
 Like the Bern Agreements of March and April 1918, which provided for the repatriation of prisoners older than 45, older than 40 with more than three children and those who had been captive for over 18 months, concluded between France and Germany.
 The Impact of World War I on the Law Governing the Treatment of Prisoners of War and the Making of a Humanitarian Subject / Neville Wylie and Lindsey Cameron. The European Journal of International Law, Vol. 29, no. 4, 2018, p. 1327-1350.
 « Puisse donc cette Convention, dans laquelle vous avez versé toute la pitié que vous ont inspiré les souffrances des prisonniers pendant la grande guerre, demeurer à jamais ensevelie dans l’ombre des chancelleries et des bibliothèques ! ». Extract from the report presented by ICRC member Georges Werner to the 1929 Diplomatic Conference on behalf of the Commission in charge of drafting the Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (as reproduced in the International Review of the Red Cross).
 For an updated interpretation of the provision in the 1949 Geneva Convention, see the commentary on Article 123, available at: https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/Comment.xsp?action=openDocument&documentId=394610EB27AB3426C12585880034EC1D.