It was surprisingly difficult and I wasn't able to recover the details of all of the communiques.
For those of you who (yes, I do have readers) don’t have a detailed knowledge of the Falklands War, the issue (except for the nutters) revolves around the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano (an old light cruiser, formerly the USS Pheonix) by HMS Conqueror (a Churchill-class nuclear attack submarine) on 2nd May 1982.
The facts seem to be this (if you can show errors or actual dispute, put it in the comments and I will amend):
- On 2nd April 1982, the Argentine Army invaded the British Dependent Territory of the Falkland Islands – an unprovoked act of war but in the context of a long-running territorial dispute (especially linked to the South Georgia landing of 20th Dec 1981.)
- The UK had declared a 200 mile Maritime Exclusion Zone around the islands on 12th April and this became a Total Exclusion Zone on 30th April.
- The Belgrano was outside of (but close to) the TEZ and, at the precise time of the sinking and for some time previously, had been heading away from the TEZ.
- Conqueror received a change to her ROE (Rules of Engagement) and sank the Belgrano with a spread of MK8 (WW2 vintage) torpedoes.
- There were a series of errors or omissions on the British side – signals were either not sent or had not been passed to the relevant politicians or military commanders and Conqueror’s official ship’s log is, for some people “conveniently”, missing.
- The Belgrano’s escort destroyers attempted, but failed, to hunt Conqueror down and there was significant loss of life – the greatest in the conflict – the consensus seems to be 323 Argentinian lives.
- Many (most) of those killed in the engagement were conscripts.
Other issues also contributed:
- The British military, especially the Royal Navy, was suffering through the Nott cuts, which had greatly cut back military capability. In the eyes of most analysts, the success of the Falklands War from the British point of view was down to utter professionalism and some significant luck, not having an organised power projection capability (and even that required much requisitioning of civilian shipping capability – the “STUFT” – Ships Taken Up From Trade vessels.)
- One of the more emotive cuts, as far as the South Atlantic was concerned, was the withdrawal of HMS Endurance, the Royal Navy’s support to the British Antarctic area (although a warship per se – painted bright red and having mounts for light weapons but no actual armament, she was hardly the military deterrent that some commentators insist. Of significant use to the area and a political symbol of British presence, indeed but, in an environment of vicious cut-backs in military spending, no great surprise that the aging vessel was being withdrawn and not replaced).
- Political and social upheavals in Argentina were growing and a bit of populist nationalist argie-bargie (yes, I know, but you know I had too ☺) would be likely to improve the situation for the ruling junta.
- During the conflict, the Royal Navy demonstrated the usefulness of NGS – Naval Gunfire Support, to an amphibious campaign. Compared to the RN ships, the most heavily armed of which were the County Class destroyers with a single twin-4.5” gun turret and some (the Type 22 frigates) had been built with no gun armament what-so-ever, the Belgrano was equipped with 15 6” guns and a range of secondary armament. Her accompanying destroyers had equivalent weaponry to the RN ships (because they were, in one of these amusing quirks of history, British-built Type 42 ships.) Belgrano was considered to represent a significant threat to any amphibious beachhead and, to a lesser but not trivial extent, the British fleet itself.
- Although the Belgrano group was outside of the MEZ / TEZ, the British had also passed the following message to the Argentine government on 23rd April, quite reasonable in the context of a war –
In announcing the establishment of a Maritime Exclusion Zone around the Falkland Islands, Her Majesty's Government made it clear that this measure was without prejudice to the right of the United Kingdom to take whatever additional measures may be needed in the exercise of its right of self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. In this connection, Her Majesty's Government now wishes to make clear that any approach on the part of Argentine warships, including submarines, naval auxiliaries or military aircraft, which could amount to a threat to interfere with the mission of British Forces in the South Atlantic will encounter the appropriate response.
- Amended: Although Conqueror was currently tracking the Belgrano group, there was no certainty that this would continue indefinitely - at some point the sub would need to break contact and it might have taken some time to re-establish herself in a position to fire.
So, after that ramble, what am I actually asking you to consider – was the sinking of the Belgrano a “war crime” and, if so, was Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister of the UK at the time, sufficiently complicit in the crime to be indictable for it.
Now, to be a “war crime” you have to meet certain tests, just as the majority of deaths in combat should not be treated as murder, however unnecessary. The controversy around the killing of Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull is a classic example – whether or not the pilots should be taken to a Board of Enquiry and subsequent Courts Martial for his death is one question – I have seen little sensible comment that suggests that despite the fact that they clearly intended to destroy the patrol and its vehicles that they should be tried for murder. Corporal Payne (British Army, Duke of Lancaster's Regiment) is another example - he was (is) charged with manslaughter not murder.
Most of the tests are contained in the various Geneva conventions – dealing with treatment of the injured, Prisoners of War, and civilians (and their property) in the war zone. Under the relevant UK law, Section 50 of the International Criminal Court Act 2001, you are referred to the Article 8.2 of the Statute of International Criminal Court.
Reading this, it seems clear to me that there is no way attacking, or ordering the attack on, a warship of a hostile power which represented a clear (although not immediate) danger to your operations, however great (and tragic) the loss of life is (and no matter how little culpability the individual sailors had in the political decision to go to war) could be considered a war crime.
Also, the 3 Para (another British Army in Iraq issue) trial and Judge's ruling raises questions of doubt, I suppose, though I am not a lawyer, of mens rea where a lawful military activity goes beyond those bounds and results in an unlawful death or deaths and how blame can be allocated. Under the ICC Statute, it would seem that for it to be a War Crime, where the persons involved were acting in accordance with their lawful ROE and within the Geneva Conventions, would be quite hard (even for the person or persons whose direct actions caused the deaths.) Furthermore, it would appear to be extremely difficult to convict of a War Crime the “Commander in Chief”, or in Maggie’s case, political leader, who caused those ROE to be set even if, as it clearly didn’t here, one or more persons following those ROE could be charged with War Crimes.
Amend: I would add here that creating and following ROE that contradicted the Geneva Conventions would likely be chargeable as a War Crime and, for the political leadership, there is also the different definitions of "Crimes against Humanity", in the same statutes. Again, the relevant situation: the killing of serving military personnel, who had neither surrendered or indicated a desire to surrender, as a consequence of the destruction of the military asset in which they were travelling. I cannot see how this could fit.
So, Terry, you may not like what was done during the war but, please, if you are going to throw around the allegations of “war criminal”, please justify it with reference to the current statutes, or to those that applied in 1982 , rather merely restating or referring to the opinions of Tam Dalyell or Diane Gould.
On a somewhat separate issue Rwanda & Iraq (both Abu Ghraib and the QLR mess) show the problems of combat troops, however well trained and disciplined undertaken what is essentially a policing role. This is exacerbated when you are operating in a guerrilla / terrorist scenario and it is impossible to tell whether the person in front of you is an armed terrorist, an active supporter (possibly even a lookout), a sympathiser for the cause (all three of these could wear distinctive clothing or symbols), or an innocent civilian. Take an analogy with football: players and fans (active & passive) wear the same strips – and these also make their way to remote Amazonian and Papua New Guinean tribes. A further problem is that innocence is relative – they may not be terrorists but criminals – with a strong incentive not to be stopped and searched, or whatever, by a military patrol. In the naval context, the same could be assumed for a warship or auxiliary, a civilian vessel transporting troops (the Iranian Republican Guard Boghammer speedboats, for example), a blockade runner (so a legitimate military target), a fishing boat and a cigarette smuggler.
PS – while searching for the text of the Exclusion Zone announcements, I came across these neo-Terrys. It is obviously endemic within the Trot communitare. I particularly enjoy them getting Denis and Mark mixed up.
PPS - As RFS is currently fisking Terry for putting a comma in the wrong place and completely changing his meaning, I though I had better correct my error.