“It was absolutely not a war crime. It was an act of war, lamentably legal.”
The above was said by the Belgrano’s captain, Hector Bonzo, in an interview two years before his death in 2009.
Since that fateful afternoon on May 2, 1982, the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano by the British nuclear-powered submarine Conqueror has been regarded as one of the most controversial events of the Falklands War.
Many British critics of the action, which resulted in the deaths of 323 Argentinian sailors, see the sinking as a war crime.
In their eyes, the action was a disgraceful act of provocation by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher designed to escalate the conflict.
However, it doesn’t quite work that way. The Belgrano was sunk outside the 200-nautical-mile total exclusion zone around the Falklands.
Exclusion zones are historically declared for the benefit of neutral vessels; during war, under international law, the heading and location of a belligerent naval vessel has no bearing on its status.
In addition, the captain of the Belgrano, Héctor Bonzo, has testified that the attack was legitimate (as did the Argentine government in 1994).
Though the ship was outside the 200-mile exclusion zone, both sides understood that this was no longer the limit of British action — on 23 April a message was passed via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires to the Argentine government, it read:
“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.
All Argentine aircraft, including civil aircraft engaged in surveillance of these British forces, will be regarded as hostile and are liable to be dealt with accordingly.”
Interviews conducted by Martin Middlebrook for his book, The Fight For The Malvinas, indicated that Argentine Naval officers understood the intent of the message was to indicate that any ships operating near the exclusion zone could be attacked.
Argentine Rear Admiral Allara, who was in charge of the task force that the Belgrano was part of, said “After that message of 23 April, the entire South Atlantic was an operational theatre for both sides. We, as professionals, said it was just too bad that we lost the Belgrano“.
The modified rules of engagement permitted the engagement of Belgrano outside the exclusion zone before the sinking.
In his book, One Hundred Days, Admiral Woodward makes it clear that he regarded the Belgrano as part of the southern part of a pincer movement aimed at the task force, and had to be sunk quickly:
“The speed and direction of an enemy ship can be irrelevant, because both can change quickly. What counts is his position, his capability and what I believe to be his intention.”
Admiral Enrique Molina Pico, head of the Argentine Navy in the 1990s, wrote in a letter to La Nación, published in the 2 May 2005 edition, that the Belgrano was part of an operation that posed a real threat to the British task force, that it was holding off for tactical reasons, and that being outside of the exclusion zone was unimportant as it was a warship on tactical mission. This is the official position of the Argentine Navy.