International Control Commission

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The International Control Commission (ICC) was an international force established in 1954 that oversaw the implementation of the Geneva Accords that ended the First Indochina War with the Partition of Vietnam.[1] It reported on the progress of the ceasefires and any violations against them. The force comprised troops and officers from Canada, Poland, and India representing the non-communist, communist, and non-aligned blocs respectively.


The International Control Commission was created with the purpose of applying maintaining the Geneva Accords, a treaty signed as part of the removal of Vietnam from the French Empire. However, while both were created in the same treaty, the International Control Commission is distinct from the Joint Commission. It was the duty of the Joint Commission to actually oversee the cease-fire in the region and ensure a continuation of peace, as well as to act as the adjudicator in all issues relating to the peace. It was the duty of the International Control Commission to oversee the region and ensure that the terms of the treaty are followed. Specifically, the treaty discusses four primary duties of the International Control Commission, which are listed below:

“(a) Control the movement of the armed forces of the two parties, effected within the framework of the regroupment plan.

(b) Supervise the demarcation lines between the re-grouping areas, and also the demilitarized zones.

(c) Control the operations of releasing prisoners of war and civilian internees.

(d) Supervise at ports and airfields as well as along all frontiers of Viet-Nam the execution of the provisions of the agreement on the cessation of hostilities, regulating the introduction into the country of armed forces, military personnel and of all kinds of arms, munitions and war material.”[2]

The treaty makes it quite clear that in fact the International Control Commission was the inferior Commission, and was given little actual power to affect politics in the region. Instead, it was simply given power to conduct studies and write reports on what was happening on the ground in Vietnam and return the information to the Joint Council which would make policy decisions. The Joint Council could request the opinion of the International Control Commission, but was free to not consider it.[2] However, this lack of governing power was not well known by the public, and the International Control Commission would fall under attack for its perceived lack of leadership in the region when in reality it was unable to serve the role people expected.[3]

The Relocation and Early Peacekeeping (1954-1956)[edit]

The first action of the International Control Commission as stipulated by the treaty was to separate the state of Vietnam into two separate zones, one controlled by the People's Army of Vietnam in the North, and the other controlled by the French Union in the South. These regions would go on to be colloquially known as North and South Vietnam. As part of the treaty, this division was given 300 days in which to occur and was overseen by the International Control Commission.

The first and likely most important duty of the International Control Commission was the relocation itself. Many people wanted to move, and the manpower and resources that it took was tremendous. In all, 897,149 people were moved from one half of Vietnam to the other, 892,876 from north to south, and 4,269 from south to north. This movement was largely successful, despite feelings on both sides that there were issues. The largest complaint from the North was that the South was distributing untrue and derogatory propaganda in an attempt to get people to emigrate, and in the South that the North was blocking immigration. In total, the deadline was actually extended a full month to allow additional people to travel, despite British, Canadian and International Control Commission pressure to extend it further. While this process is not well remembered and had its share of issues, there is little doubt it was a success.

In addition to the sheer logistical problems of moving the numbers of people to where they needed to go had to worry about the treatment of citizens that would not or could not move. Officially, there was a requirement by the Geneva Agreement that all citizens regardless of side would be granted “democratic liberties”[2] While there is no official definition as to the meaning of this phrase, it is likely that it refers to the Lockean ideals of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In this case, however, it more specifically refers to the right to live without fear of government reprisals. However, these are two radically different groups that had been at war for years. That the governments of the regions would be able to guarantee this freedom is unlikely, to say the least. To answer this problem, the International Control Commission created the Freedoms Committee to answer the concerns of anyone who submitted a claim that their democratic liberties had been violated. In total, this committee heard 17,397 cases under these rules over the course of the 300 days of the relocation. While the International Control Commission may have settled the cases, the governments of the respective sides did little to enforce them and the majority of cases were not helped by the International Control Commission. Those that were, were settled reasonably fairly, and the International Control Commission is well regarded for its work during this period. It may not have been able to help with every case, but it did manage to help a lot of people.

According to the original accords, the separation of the regions was to be the end of the International Control Commission. However, members of the commission looked at the state of the country and decided that it was in the best interest of all involved for them to continue. Tensions between the North and the South were running high, and while neither group were very big fans of the International Control Commission they preferred talking to it than to their counterparts. The Joint Commission did not however, and disbanded, leaving the International Control Commission in a position where it was unsure of its own powers.[3] The main reason to remain in Vietnam at this point was to ensure that the tenuous peace held. While the Commission was there, there was still the hope of their final job being carried out, that of holding an election. This election to unify Vietnam was to be held two years after the separation in order to attempt to reach a longer-term peace and prevent a permanent split between the two sides. However, there was little hope in anyone's mind that these elections would actually happen after the two years of increased tension between the two Vietnams and the international community as a whole. By the time the election was set to take place, even the International Control Commission was unexcited by the premise. As such, when the proposed date for the elections, July 21, 1956, did occur, there was no surprise when they in fact did not happen. However, the tenuous peace that the International Control Commission was able to keep held the two sides in check for years that otherwise would have likely descended into conflict almost immediately.

Growing Difficulties (1956-1973)[edit]

Despite still existing, the Commission quickly found itself with few friends and fewer powers. It was unable to control much of anything or act as anything beyond a minor speed bump for either side. The states that sat on the Commission were secondary powers at best, never large enough to have a major impact on world affairs during the Cold War in comparison to the two super powers. In addition they were sitting on a fault line between the two major powers that had been fighting not ten years earlier. What had begun as a ceasefire quickly became a battlefield as tensions continued to flair. After the first two years when the active partitioning ended and the two Vietnamese governments became more and more comfortable in their ability to rule they also became closer and closer to their respective patrons, the North to the Soviet Union and the South to the United States. This relationship to the larger powers allowed the developing states to take bigger risks and care less and less about the condemnation of the International Control Commission. In addition, when the global superpowers looked to act through the states the International Control Commission could not respond either, as the international community needed to defer to the superpowers giving the International Control Commission few ways to influence anything. Without any actual power or backing of the global super powers there was little for the International Control Commission to do to enforce their views except complain to what was quickly becoming an empty room. The Commission was expected to police two states and ensure a full peace between the global superpowers, a daunting task for the entire world during the period, let alone a commission. As such, the power of the International Control Commission drained away during this period until it was little more than a figurehead, able to state its opinions but little more in the region.

This was seen most pointedly in arms traffic, which was strictly limited under the terms of the Geneva Agreements. However, after the successful separation and the growth of super power influence trafficking became a much more important factor. The means of and the response to this issue is seen in this quote from John Holms:

“ the North the International Control Commission was unable to observe violations of the arms control stipulation but never able to maintain adequate inspection to be assured that no violations were taking place. In the South the struggle was with the indifference and reluctance of the authorities and the persistent effort of the Americans to press the terms of the Agreement farther than they could properly be stretched. The violations in the South were, needless to say, observable, and the attitude of the Americans was negative but decent. The Commission was in a position to prove Southern but not Northern violations. The Southerners and Americans inevitably complained and increasingly insisted that the known if not proved disregard of the arms control provisions by the Communists not only justified by made essential their doing likewise.”[4]

This difficulty further reduced the impact of the International Control Commission, preventing them from performing their duties and putting into question their existence. That they could not reach the North was a problem, since it was their sworn duty to maintain “democratic liberties” and put a stop to any kind of growing threats to violence. Inability to patrol regularly allows the North to build whatever they want, as there is no threat of the international community stopping them because the ICC has no actual way of enforcing order.

That this lack of respect from the North led to them also losing the ability to police the South is the great tragedy of the region. With the North so far away and difficult to control any attempt to do their job in the South was met with cries of a double standard. While this was technically true, it did show the inherent issues with the International Control Commission. They were a regulatory board with no ability to regulate the one thing they were supposed to. As such they drifted further and further into ridicule in the eyes of the world.

Another major and far more tangible difficulty that the International Control Commission ran into around this time was a severe lack of funds. The Commission was funded by the various states that composed it, but it was an extremely low priority during the Cold War. As such, donations would frequently be late or simply never arrive. This combined with the greater and greater operating expenses as the Joint Commission disbanded and the International Control Commission was forced to take on greater responsibility and the financial straits. This led to further inability to operate and reduced its power in the region.

A third major difficulty the International Control Commission experienced during this period was a lack of manpower and transportation. For the International Control Commission to function properly as a check on the two Vietnams they would have to be able to not only travel throughout the region with impunity to look for signs of growing tension or violations of “democratic liberties” but would have to be able to catch the states unaware. If they were unable to do this, it would be trivial for one of the sides to hide any evidence of misconduct from the International Control Commission. However, due to the money issues the International Control Commission was unable to maintain a fleet of cars that would allow them to travel on their own, and the growing distrust between the two states made it more and more dangerous to travel between them. As such, the only safe way to travel was in government convoys. While this was safer and cheaper for the International Control Commission, it did mean that they lost that crucial element of surprise. This further reduced their impact in the region and made them even more ephemeral.

Among all of these issues, by far the biggest blow to the International Control Commission is the growing military presence of the United States during the 1960s that would ultimately escalate into the Vietnam War. The troops and military supplies brought in were in clear defiance of the Geneva Agreements, but the lack of power invested in the International Control Commission meant that they were completely unable to prevent even this. They could do no more than write a sternly worded report on February 13, 1965. While this letter did state in no uncertain terms that what the US did was in violation of the Geneva Agreements and that there were growing conflicts between the two sides. However, there was no response from the international community, so the power and reputation of the International Control Commission fell further. If it was unable to even defend the Agreement it was created to enforce, what good was it in the world. In response to this growing irreverence the International Control Commission attempted to hang on as a moderating voice in the conflict. They made several attempts to bring the two sides closer together and to start a dialogue but their efforts came to naught. This lack of effect was to be endemic of the International Control Commission during the conflict, as they were unable to negotiate a peace as the tensions grew into full blown war and their role became more and more vestigial in the face of regional politics.

Collapse and Disillusion (1972-1973)[edit]

The International Control Commission did not outlive the Vietnam War. Their fall came from an unlikely source, with India, one of the key member states of the International Control Commission normalizing relations with North but not South Vietnam. This so insulted that the South Vietnamese forced the Indians and by extension all of the International Control Commission out of the country. While the Commission tried to function from Hanoi, it became much harder to regulate South Vietnam. This coupled with the general pointlessness of the institution in the modern world meant that in March 1973 the International Control Commission formally shut down and were replaced by the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS).[3]


  1. ^ Moise, Edwin E. (2009-2-9 (rev)). "The International Commissions: ICC (ICSC) and ICCS". Vietnam War Bibliography. Clemson University. Retrieved 2010-02-09.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  3. ^ a b c Brosnan, V. (2010, January 29). The International Control Commission for Vietnam; the diplomatic and military context (T). Retrieved from (Original work published 1975) Section II
  4. ^ John Holmes, “Techniques of Peacekeeping in Asia”, in Alastair Buchan, ed. China and the Peace of Asia, p. 245. quoted in Brosnan 93.