The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

Central Tracing Agency

The Central Tracing Agency (CTA) is a division of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), based in Geneva, that acts as an intermediary between separated persons to help them find each other and to renew or maintain contact with their family when they can no longer communicate directly because of situations such as conflicts, internal disturbances and tensions, or natural disasters.

Humanitarian law affirms the principle of family unity, the right to family correspondence, and the rights of individuals to know the fate of their family members. Thus, the Geneva Conventions provide for a system of National Information Bureaus (NIB) and a Central Information Agency to collect information and transmit it to families. The role of the Central Information Agency has been taken over by the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency. Customary international humanitarian law also prescribes that, in international and non-international armed conflicts, each party to the conflict must take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing as a result of armed conflict and must provide their family members with any information on their fate (Rule 117 of the ICRC customary IHL study, published in 2005).

In times of conflict, the CTA acts as a liaison, working in coordination with the NIBs that the parties to a conflict are under the obligation to set up (GCI Art. 16; GCII Art. 19; GCIII Arts. 122, 123; and GCIV Arts. 136–140). If there is no NIB or official auxiliary agency, the National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent must fill this important role. At all other times, the CTA may still offer its services, by virtue of the ICRC’s right of initiative and its position as a neutral intermediary.

In all circumstances, the CTA’s tasks succeed thanks to the network that the National Societies make up.

Humanitarian organizations—interceding in situations in which individuals face difficulties in communicating with their relatives and close friends—can be useful in distributing the appropriate standard forms and in providing individuals with information concerning the different possibilities for renewing contact with their family members: exchange of correspondence, tracing requests, requests for other information, and family reunification. For each of these requests, standard forms should be used. These are available through National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies or the ICRC.

The CTA carries out five principal activities, with the assistance of the National Societies, each described in the following sections:

Exchange of Correspondence

This service enables the exchange of family information to be maintained or restored when normal channels of communication are obstructed or blocked because of conflicts, internal disturbances, or natural disasters.

The CTA sets up a special system of correspondence, if and for as long as there is not another way to deliver family correspondence. This “Red Cross mail” is mainly set up for families but can be extended to others in situations of emergency.

The CTA uses standard forms, in conformity with the Geneva Conventions:

  • The Red Cross Message (RCM), or Family Message, is the best known. It gives the complete address of the sender and the addressee and can contain a maximum of twenty-five words. The information included must be of a strictly personal or family nature, without political, economic, military, or discriminatory references. The message is not confidential. Civilian or military officials of the State from which the message is being sent, or from the recipient State, may therefore censor it. National Societies may only censor these messages if they contain information that is not personal and family related.
  • The “Anxious for News” form is used in certain emergency situations in the hope of receiving a reply rapidly. As with the Family Message, the most recent complete address of the addressee must be given by the sender. However, the message reads “urgent, send news” only.
  • The “In Good Health” card is used for victims of serious events to inform their relatives that they are in good health.

Information Consolidation

The CTA receives, collects, and keeps track of information concerning a person or group who may be the subject of a tracing request or a request for family reunification at a later date.

Such persons include civilian internees, prisoners of war, unaccompanied children, and sick persons. The sources of information concerning the whereabouts of such persons vary depending on the country and situation. It may come from civilians, military or religious officials, NGOs, UN agencies, the victims themselves, or their families. It is important that the different sources transmit information that is complete and precise, as delineated by the different standard forms. This is crucial to the efficient management of the database in which the information is consolidated.

Therefore, though the information may arrive in any form—letters, faxes, phone calls, tapes—it must contain the following elements:

  • Personal identification information: complete name, sex, and date of birth. The nationality or country of origin, name of the mother, father, spouse, married status, profession, and so forth may also be added, if appropriate.
  • Information concerning the event: the description of the event (conflict, disaster, national or international crisis) and, if possible, what happened to the person (when he or she left, was separated from others, etc.).
  • The date and source of the document from which the information came: No matter what form the information arrives in, it is then transcribed onto a standard individual identification form, which is kept in the same computerized database as the tracing requests (described in the next section), so as to establish matches between people looking for each other. This information is kept for one hundred years when it concerns individuals protected by humanitarian law, so that approximately three generations can take advantage of this information. It may also be used as the basis for later affidavits, so that former captives or their families can claim retirement, reparations, or retirement pensions.

Tracing Requests

People who are worried about the fate of their close family and friends because of a situation of emergency (whether armed conflict, natural disaster, etc.) may file a tracing request with the Red Cross. The CTA and National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent carry out these searches. Requests by family members are given priority. However, those filed by friends may be looked into if they are spurred by humanitarian concerns. As to individual identification forms, there are standard forms for tracing requests, though the original request may arrive in any form, such as letters. These data are then transcribed into the same computerized database as the consolidated information.

Hiding may be a way to protect oneself; therefore, certain precautions must be taken to ensure that the traced person is not imperiled by the search. Once they are found, they are informed that someone is looking for them. The identity of the requesting person is then provided, and the address of the traced person is only transmitted with his or her permission.

Family Reunification

Once the tracing or information requests have been successful, they usually result in requests for family reunification. The role of the CTA and National Societies then consists in counseling the persons concerned and helping them collect the necessary documentation and meet the required traveling formalities (authorizations for departure and entry, etc.).

It is up to the individuals concerned to decide where they would like to be reunited. Once again, there are standard forms for family reunification requests. A distinction is made between different degrees of family reunification:

  • First-degree family reunification: the head of family and family members who are directly dependent on, or related to, the head of family, such as the spouse, children who are minors, elderly parents.
  • Second-degree family reunification: the head of family and family members who do not directly depend on him or her because they can provide for themselves.

If the sociocultural context provides a broader definition of “the family,” it is possible to widen the concept.

ICRC Travel Documents

Established in 1945, the ICRC travel document is given free of charge to displaced persons, stateless persons, and refugees who cannot return to their country of origin or residence or go to a country willing to receive them, because they are missing the necessary papers. The document is delivered only under certain circumstances (absence of valid passport or any other form of travel document; commitment to deliver a visa on the part of the State to which the person wishes to go). Once the journey has been completed, the document must be given back to the ICRC.

AdoptionChildrenEvacuationFamilyFamily reunificationInternal disturbances and tensionsInternational armed conflictMissing persons and the deadPrisoners of warRed Cross and the Red CrescentWar

Central Tracing Agency

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

19 avenue de la Paix

CH 1202 Geneva, Switzerland

Tel.: (41) 22 734 60 01

Fax: (41) 22 733 20 57

For Additional Information: Djurovic, Gradimir. The Central Tracing Agency of the ICRC . Geneva: Henry Dunant Institute, 1986.

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