Position Paper Prepared in the Department of State



Failure of the USSR To Repatriate or Otherwise Account for Prisoners of War Detained Within Soviet Territory

the problem

Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have submitted an item on “failure of the USSR to Repatriate or Otherwise Account for Prisoners of War Detained Within Soviet Territory,” [Page 551] for inclusion in the supplementary list.1 The problem is to determine what method of handling in the General Assembly would be most likely to secure helpful Assembly action.


Raise in advance with the delegations of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway and France (prisoners of whose nationalities are detained in the USSR) the possibility of participating in the case by presenting evidence or co-sponsoring the draft resolution.
Make clear, by its presentation of available information, the tremendous shortcomings of the USSR in relation to the repatriation of and accounting for prisoners of war and civilians, and specifically, the Soviet failure to fulfill its obligations under international agreements on these subjects.
Submit jointly, and with such other delegations as are prepared to do so, a draft resolution making reference to the necessity of observing humanitarian standards in relation to the treatment of prisoners of war; reciting that vast numbers remain unaccounted for by the USSR; appointing an impartial investigating committee of individuals to study the facts at first hand; and requesting the USSR and other states and authorities concerned to collaborate with the Committee in efforts to bring about the prompt and full accounting for all prisoners of war and the prompt repatriation of all prisoners of war now living.
Oppose the grant of a hearing in the Assembly to Japanese or German representatives, but favor permission to these governments to send written statements and, if agreed to by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan (SCAP) and the High Commissioner’s Office in Germany (HICOG), to send experts to accompany SCAP and HICOG representatives as observers.


A. Background

International Law Bearing on Soviet Practices
Article XX of Hague Convention No. 4 of 1907 provides that “After the conclusion of peace, the repatriation of prisoners of war shall be [Page 552] carried out as quickly as possible.” This Convention is generally regarded as indicative of international law on the subjects which it covers. The Soviet Union is not a party to the Geneva Convention of July 27, 1929 relating to the treatment of prisoners of war, Article 75 of which obligates belligerents to repatriate prisoners of war “with the least possible delay after the conclusion of peace.” However, the Soviet Union signed Geneva Convention III of 1949 relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, Article 118, paragraph 1, of which provides that “Prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.” Moreover, the Soviet Union took an active part in the Geneva Diplomatic Conference of 1949 which drew up this Convention. In addition, the Soviet Union is a party to the Geneva Convention of July 27, 1929 for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick of Armies in the Field (Red Cross Convention), Article 4 of which provides that “Upon the termination of hostilities they (the belligerents) shall exchange lists of graves and of dead buried in their cemeteries and elsewhere.”
Allied Repatriation of Enemy Prisoners of War, 1945–19502
All Allied powers except the USSR have long since completed the repatriation of prisoners of war which were in their custody. However the USSR has consistently shown at least a strong reluctance to release its prisoners of war and civilian internees. Despite the Potsdam commitment to return all Japanese prisoners of war as soon as possible, no semblance of a program of repatriation of Japanese from the USSR existed until after the conclusion of the agreement with SCAP in December, 1946. Despite this agreement and the Foreign Ministers Agreement in Moscow in April, 1947, to repatriate all German prisoners of war by the end of 1948, the USSR was evasive, dilatory and secretive about its repatriation movements. The Soviet representative walked out of or absented himself from the Allied Council for Japan whenever the subject of Soviet repatriation was raised. No figures were ever supplied concerning civilians. No reports were ever made of deaths of prisoners of war, nor was any other information given as to identity, etc. Nothing but bare total figures have ever been supplied.
The Tass Announcements3
For some time a great discrepancy has existed between Soviet contentions and the beliefs of the non-Soviet world concerning the number [Page 553] of prisoners of war under Soviet control. (Finally, on April 22, 1950, Tass announced that all Japanese prisoners of war had now been repatriated except 2,467 detained in connection with war crimes or on account of illness, on May 5, 1950, that repatriation of German prisoners of war was complete except for some 13,500 detained for the same alleged causes.
The Question of the Number of Japanese Prisoners Still in Soviet Hands
On the basis of records carefully maintained during the war and revised up to May 1, 1950 in the light of subsequent information made available by returning repatriates, the Japanese Government claims that of some 1,620,516 Japanese nationals (including both prisoners of war and civilians) originally taken by the USSR, 309,070 are still to be returned home or otherwise accounted for—some 229,000 from Siberia and some 80,000 from Sakhalin and the Kuriles. It further claims that an additional 60,000 persons are still to be accounted for from territories now under the control of the Chinese Communists. Of the 309,070 to be accounted for from Soviet-controlled territory, the Japanese estimate that some 229,000 are prisoners of war and some 80,000 are civilians.
The USSR, whose figures are believed to include only prisoners of war and not civilians, has claimed that only 594,000 originally fell into Soviet hands and that only 2467 remain. Probable factors in the tremendous discrepancies between the Soviet and Japanese figures are (1) the USSR has at no time given any information on deaths (or births); (2) some Japanese have been handed over to the Chinese Communist authorities; (3) a reasonable margin of error in the Japanese figures; and (4) certain numbers of Japanese troops died on the field of battle, were never reported in casualty lists, and never fell into Soviet hands.
With regard to (1) above, the Japanese Government has already confirmed, on the basis of sworn statements of at least two witnesses in each case, the deaths of some 70,000 persons and issued death certificates to their families. It is probable that many more than that number have died, though it is difficult to believe that the number reached 300,000. As for the possibility that large numbers of prisoners were handed over to the Chinese Communist authorities, there is no available evidence from either Soviet sources or from the statements of returning repatriates in support of such a view. The possibility of inaccuracy in the Japanese Government’s statistics would also appear to be far-fetched: these statistics have been closely scrutinized by SCAP since the surrender of Japan, and there is no reason to doubt them, particularly in view of the fact that similar statistics for other [Page 554] areas in the Pacific have proven to be surprisingly accurate. As to unreported Japanese casualties on the field of battle, while such a factor cannot be overlooked, it is impossible to believe that the number could be very large, since the USSR and Japan were engaged in hostilities for a period of only seven days.
In any event, when all allowances are made, it is simply not reasonable to conclude that anywhere near all the prisoners of war have been returned. The fact that thousands of petitions from families and civic groups throughout Japan continue to pour into General Headquarters is ample proof that vast numbers of Japanese prisoners of war are unaccounted for.
The Question of the Number of German Prisoners Still in Soviet Hands
During the War Soviet claims of prisoners of war captured in Europe exceeded 4,000,000 men but since 1945 the Soviet Government, in giving numbers of prisoners of war, has accounted for only 1.9 million.
Molotov in 1947 at the Council of Foreign Ministers in Moscow, stated that following Germany’s surrender 1,033,974 persons had been freed and returned to Germany and that as of that date the total number of German prisoners of war in the territory of the Soviet Union was 890,532. While the other Powers did not formally challenge this statement, they as well as the Germans considered it to be far short of the actual number of prisoners of war in Soviet custody. In the May 1950 Tass statement an accounting of prisoners of war was given on the basis of the 1947 statement.
German sources state that between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 prisoners of war who were in Soviet custody remain unaccounted for today. Since, the figures available to us are at best estimates, the Delegation should avoid giving any specific figure of Soviet holdings of German prisoners of war as its official estimate. From evidence available to it, however, the Department believes that several hundred thousand prisoners of war may still be in Soviet custody. A recent census conducted in Germany has revealed that many thousand prisoners of war have corresponded with their families in Germany at so recent a date as to impugn the Soviet claim that all German prisoners of war have been repatriated. The Tass figures themselves are incorrect on their face as it would appear from [sic] that there has been not one prisoner of war death since the 1947 Molotov statement—a conclusion completely at variance with known facts as to the high percentage of deaths in Soviet prisoner of war camps.

B. Charter Aspects of Submittal and Consideration of this Question

In their explanatory memorandum, the three Governments state that they are placing the matter before the Assembly under Articles 10, [Page 555] 14, and 1(3) of the Charter. The Department places chief emphasis upon Article 14 as specific authorization for us to submit and for the Assembly to consider the problem. Reference to Article 1(3) was added at the suggestion of the United Kingdom, as a basis for argument that the Soviet practices are violative of human rights.

The Soviet delegation will challenge our right to submit and the Assembly’s right to consider this matter, on the basis of the Soviet interpretation of Article 107 of the Charter. That article states: “Nothing in the present Charter shall invalidate or preclude action, in relation to any state which during the Second World War has been an enemy of any signatory to the present Charter, taken or authorized as a result of that war by the governments having responsibility for such action.” In the Berlin case, the United States took the position that this article in no wise limits the powers of United Nations bodies under Chapter III, IV, VI and VII. All but two members of the Security Council agreed that Article 107 did not operate as a limitation upon the powers of the Council to consider and act upon a threat to the peace. Similarly, our position here is that Article 107 does not limit the power of the General Assembly to consider and make recommendations on situations (“regardless of origin”) which are likely to impair the general welfare or friendly relations between nations. Article 107 does not restrain Allied powers having responsibilities for action in relation to defeated enemy states from bringing their differences with other such powers to the United Nations even if those differences relate to conduct of any of them in respect of nationals of a former enemy. Moreover, conduct by an Allied power which is not reasonably incidental to its task of completing the defeat of the enemy and of discharging its control responsibilities but is, on the contrary, utterly inconsistent with the proper performance of these tasks, is not protected by Article 107. The general purpose of Article 107 is merely to prevent attack in the United Nations upon peace treaties which were expected to be drawn up in agreement by the Allied powers, or upon action by Allied powers pursuant to such treaties. Its specific purport is merely that action taken by an Allied power which would otherwise be a violation of the Charter may be deprived of that Charter if properly authorized by a peace treaty; if the matter is raised in the United Nations the power concerned may be able to plead Article 107 as a defense.

The three delegations can demonstrate that they submitted the problem to the United Nations only after continued efforts through the control machinery and through diplomatic channels.

[Page 556]

C. Type of Assembly Action to be Proposed

The three submitting governments are collaborating in the preparation of a joint draft resolution which will be proposed at an early stage. The terms of such a resolution should be kept general and should preferably not contain an express condemnation of the USSR. The resolution might call for adherence to existing standards of treatment for prisoners of war as set forth in the 1949 Geneva convention, the full accounting for all prisoners taken and their prompt repatriation after the end of actual hostilities. It might state further that the interests of humanity require that, so far as possible, the uncertainty still existing about the fate of hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war be removed and that any remaining prisoners be promptly repatriated. For this purpose, while we could accept any means of impartially ascertaining the facts, the resolution would probably provide for the appointment of a special United Nations commission, composed of individuals with a reputation for impartiality and competence, which would have the task of ascertaining the facts at first hand and of doing what it could to facilitate repatriation. The resolution would request all states concerned to lend full cooperation to the Commission.

It seems certain that the USSR will refuse the Commission access to its territory. In that case the Commission can and should visit Germany and Japan, and perhaps other States, and appraise, such information as can there be supplied.

After careful consideration it is believed that these functions should be vested in an ad hoc commission rather than in the International Red Cross. The latter organization would be well-equipped to perform these functions. However, it was refused access to Soviet territory during World War II and there is no indication that the USSR is of a different mind now.

D. Question of Hearing German and Japanese Representatives in General Assembly Committee4

To grant permission to German and Japanese representatives to make statements in the Assembly committee during consideration of this item would doubtless bring an extremely favorable reaction in German and Japanese public opinion, and such representatives might contribute factually to the discussion. However, most delegations would object to granting such a privilege to these governments. The United Kingdom has already stated its strong objection, and it is [Page 557] the Department’s view that such participation in the United Nations would be premature. Accordingly, the delegation should take a definite position against such a hearing.

It would, however, probably be helpful for the German and Japanese governments to be permitted, if they so desire, to supply detailed written communications and for experts from these governments to be present at the Assembly together with representatives of HICOG and SCAP as observers to supply requested information.

  1. This was done by telegram dated August 20, 1950 addressed to the Secretary-General by the three delegations (U.N. Doc. A/1327). This action was first proposed by the Department of State to the British and French Foreign Offices on August 5 (Deptel 666 to London, repeated to Paris, 320/8550).

    For the text of an “explanatory memorandum” submitted jointly by the three governments on August 25, 1950, following up on the August 20 telegram, see Department of State Bulletin, September 11, 1950, pp. 430 ff. There are 10 annexes made up of relevant documentation attached to the memorandum; see footnote 3, below. Included are the texts of notes exchanged in the diplomatic channel between the United States and the Soviet Union on this subject, dated June 9, 1950, and July 16, 1950, respectively; see Department of State Bulletin, September 11, 1950, p. 435.

  2. For texts of relevant portions of international agreements of the post-World War II period cited in this section, see Department of State Bulletin, September 11, 1950, pp. 431 ff. These annexes are also printed in United Nations, Official Records of the General Assembly, Fifth Session, Annexes, vol. ii, fascicule relating to agenda item 67, pp. 3 ff. (hereafter cited as GA (V), Annexes, agenda item 67).
  3. For the Tass announcements of April 22 and May 5, see Department of State Bulletin, September 11, 1950, pp. 433 and 434.
  4. For the resolutions adopted in the Japanese and (West) German legislative branches of government on this matter, on May 2 and May 5, respectively, see Department of State Bulletin, September 11, 1950, p. 434.