In a display of Argentina’s traditional ‘blindness’ with regard to international law, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, called the sinking of the ARA Belgrano, during the Falklands War in 1982, a “criminal and cowardly action.”
On the 31st anniversary of the sinking, Fernandez attempted to maintain the fiction that being outside the declared ‘excusion zone’ should have spared the aging Argentine cruiser despite ample evidence that her orders were to attack the British Task Force. Such a claim also flys in the face of the opinion given by the vessels Captain, Héctor Bonzo, when he spoke to the newspaper Clarin in 2007 – “ It was an act of war. The acts of those who are at war, like the submarine’s attack, are not a crime … The crime is the war. We were on the front line and suffered the consequences. On April 30, we were authorised to open fire, and if the submarine had surfaced in front of me I would have opened fire with all our 15 guns until it sank.”
In fact the Argentine Government had been given a warning that if any of its warships presented a danger to the British fleet then they would be attacked. A warning that the Junta did not take seriously until after the Belgrano was torpedoed on May 2nd, 1982 – one month after Argentina had illegally invaded the British archipelago.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who confirmed the Admiralty’s decision to attack, wrote of the incident some years later – “ Admiral Fieldhouse told us that one of our submarines, HMS Conqueror, had been shadowing the Argentine cruiser, General Belgrano. The Belgrano was escorted by two destroyers. The cruiser itself had substantial fire power provided by 6 inch guns with a range of 13 miles and anti-aircraft missiles.
We were advised that she might have been fitted with Exocet anti-ship missiles, and her two destroyer escorts were known to be carrying them. The whole group was sailing on the edge of the Exclusion Zone. We had received intelligence about the aggressive intentions of the Argentine fleet. There had been extensive air attacks on our ships the previous day and Admiral Woodward , in command of the Task Force, had every reason to believe that a full scale attack was developing. …..
Admiral Woodward had to come to a judgment about what to do with the Belgrano in the light of these circumstances. From all the information available, he concluded that the carrier and the Belgrano group were engaged in a classic pincer movement against the Task Force. It was clear to me what must be done to protect our forces, in the light of Admiral Woodward’s concern and Admiral Fieldhouse’s advice. We therefore decided that British forces should be able to attack any Argentine naval vessel on the same basis as agreed previously for the carrier…. The Belgrano was torpedoed and sunk just before 8 o’clock that evening. Our submarine headed away as quickly as possible. Wrongly believing that they would be the next targets, the Belgrano’s escorts seem to have engaged in anti-submarine activities rather than rescuing its crew, some 321 of whom were lost ….. “
On May 7th, 1982, Argentina complained to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva which ruled that the vessel, though outside the TEZ, was within the security zone of British ships in the area; was fully armed and engaged in operations and that therefore there was no breach of the Geneva Convention. The action was perfectly legal.