Saturday, 3 March 2012

A war crime

The Mail today contains a brief but chilling account of a war crime.

The description is taken from a memoir by Tony Banks, who served with the Paras in the Falklands, which the Mail is serialising. After a hair-raising account of the famous battle of Goose Green, in which Colonel "H" Jones notoriously got himself killed, Banks turns to the less well-remembered engagement at Wireless Ridge. He writes:

The big guns finally fell silent and out of the gloom came an order that would have been familiar to the Tommies in 1916: ‘Fix bayonets, lads!’ Here we go, I said to myself. Then came an even more awful instruction: ‘No prisoners, lads.’

Banks says that "we simply did not have the resources to take prisoners" and "they had started the war and they had not shown much respect for the white flag when they had shot my three mates who went forward to take the surrender at Goose Green." Neither is an excuse recognised by the Geneva Convention.

To issue an order to take no prisoners is a fundamental violation of the principles of international law and thus a war crime. Section 40 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions provides that soldiers who have clearly expressed an intention to surrender (for example by raising their arms or waving a white flag) are considered to be hors de combat and they must be given quarter (i.e. allowed to peacefully surrender). The officer who gave that order is not named but presumably Banks, along with other surviving members of his unit, knows who it was.

It soon becomes apparent what obedience to this order actually entailed:

A terrified young soldier stood up with his hands in the air jabbering away in Spanish and obviously wanting to surrender. He looked like a teenager — a boy, much like ourselves.

He was pleading for his life. We looked at each other and hesitated. A brief argument broke out between us. Somebody shouted at us to follow orders: ‘Shoot him.’ Out of the darkness, another voice replied, ‘No, you shoot him.’

As the argument went on, the boy crumpled to his knees. Finally, somebody threw a tarpaulin over him, shot him, and finished him off with a bayonet. That was it. We moved on.

Assuming this account is accurate, this was a war crime. The fact that the Paras involved plainly knew that it was a war crime (hence the "brief argument") exacerbates rather than mitigates their guilt. One soldier killed this boy in cold blood and the others covered up for him. That makes them all guilty, morally and legally. The fact that this took place thirty years ago is no reason why it cannot now be investigated and the perpetrators brought to trial. At the very least Banks should be taken in for questioning.

It's not pleasant to contemplate war crimes committed by those fighting for your own nation, especially in furtherance of a war whose aims were morally justified. It might be said that bad things happen in battle, that there were atrocities on both sides, that all's fair in war as in love. That no-one who was not there cannot possibly know "what it was like". That even using the words "war crime" denigrates the bravery and sacrifice of our forces. Such arguments are beside the point. The United Kingdom is a nation that parades its virtue before the world, that boasts of its adherence to international agreements, even to the extent of not repatriating a notorious Jordanian terrorist. Obedience to the Geneva Convention is a touchstone of any civilised society. And when it comes to the laws of war there is no more basic principle than that you do not kill prisoners in cold blood. If a prisoner surrenders a soldier is obliged to accept that surrender. It's as simple as that.

There is no possible excuse for the barbarity described in this passage of Banks's memoir. Nor is there as statute of limitations on war crimes or murder. Nor is it relevant that this incident has only come to light because Banks chose to write about it. What better way could there be of demonstrating Britain's commitment to humanitarian values, civilisation and the rule of law -- our moral superiority to, say, the present regime in Syria -- than to bring those responsible for this crime to justice?