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Prisoners of War

III: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees

III: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees

A few days after the outbreak of the war in the Far East the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee held a special meeting in London to examine the position of prisoners taken during hostilities with Japan. The latter was bound by the Hague Convention of 1907, and had signed the Prisoners of War Convention of 1929 but had never ratified it.1 The International Red Cross Committee had written immediately after the announcement of hostilities to Great Britain, the United States and Japan, inviting their de facto reciprocal observance of the Convention and requesting them to forward all information regarding prisoners of war to the Central Agency in Geneva. By 7 January 1942 a reply had been sent to the British Minister at Berne intimating that the British Government agreed in principle with the proposal of the Committee. At the same time a communication was sent to the Japanese Government through the Argentine Government,2 informing the Japanese that the United

1 Japan had also signed the Convention of 1929 relating to the treatment of sick and wounded in the field and had ratified it except for one minor point.

2 At this stage the Argentine Government had consented to act as the Protecting Power for the interests of the United Kingdom, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand subjects in Japan, and the Swiss Government for those in the various occupied territories.

page 185 Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were observing the provisions of the 1929 Convention and asking for an assurance that the Japanese would do the same. It was specifically mentioned in this communication that for reasons of practical convenience it was proposed that the application of Articles 11 and 12 relating to food and clothing should take into account the national and racial customs of both sides. To this request the Japanese Government replied that, while not bound by the Convention, they would ‘observe its terms mutatis mutandis1 in respect of English, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Indian prisoners of war’; they would moreover take account of national and racial customs (on a basis of reciprocity) when supplying prisoners of war with food and clothing. So far as civilians were concerned, Japan agreed to apply the provisions of the 1929 Prisoners of War Convention mutatis mutandis and not to subject them against their will to manual labour.

These replies, though delayed,2 gave grounds for hope that treatment of our prisoners by Japan would be at least as humane as that of Italy and Germany, and that similar facilities for the protection of their interests and for the supply of relief would be granted. As the months passed these hopes were belied. It is true that the Japanese set up a Prisoners of War Information Bureau in Tokyo (Huryojohokyoku) in January 1942, but even in late March the only information it gave concerned the numbers of prisoners of war held in various places; and next-of-kin had to be content with fragments of information gleaned from various sources concerning their British relatives in the Far East. By mid-April the Japanese announced that they were preparing a list of 28,000 names of prisoners of war, which would be sent on the ship going to Lourenço Marques for the exchange of diplomatic personnel arranged to take place later in the year. But by the end of 1942 casualty lists from the Japanese were far from complete, and a good many of the captives held by them were never notified at all.

The same difficulties were encountered by the neutral agencies working on behalf of British prisoners of war and civilians in Japan or in Japanese-occupied territory. In Japan the International Red Cross Committee's delegate at Tokyo3 was approved in January 1942; but the Japanese distrust of all foreigners who were not nationals of a power allied to Japan made the work of

1 This was taken by the British Government to imply that the Japanese, though not bound by the letter of the Convention, would nevertheless live up to its spirit.

2 They were not received until February 1942. Meanwhile there had been constant approaches to the Japanese Government by the IRCC's representative in Tokyo and also a second formal communication from the Committee.

3 Dr Paravicini, a Swiss national who had lived for some twenty years in Japan.

page 186 this representative and that of the Protecting Power most difficult. In occupied territory the only delegates who were recognised were those at Shanghai and Hong Kong,1 the former beginning work in April and the latter in June 1942. Disturbing news received in February from a civilian refugee about atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Hong Kong gave rise to increasing concern for the future of captives in their hands; and information from various sources indicated that most of the provisions of the Geneva Convention were being openly flouted by the Japanese military authorities. In April the British Government, which strictly observed the provisions of the Geneva Convention with regard to the Japanese prisoners and internees, was considering whether or not to take some measures of reciprocity, particularly in respect of the withholding of information and the refusal of visits of neutral inspectors; but only certain special privileges, such as permission to attend cinemas, were withdrawn. It was thought advisable to give the Japanese no pretext for making their treatment of British nationals any worse. By May Japan had agreed in principle to the establishment of a mail service, and there were indications that she might in future prove more tractable.

1 The delegate in Shanghai was Dr Egle and in Hong Kong Dr Zindel.