Leading Article: Civilised standards in wartime

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The Independent Online
DETECTIVES from the international and organised crimes squad of the Metropolitan Police are to fly to the Falklands to investigate allegations that British soldiers shot prisoners of war and that others mutilated the bodies of dead Argentines during the 1982 war.

If sufficient evidence is forthcoming, those allegedly involved in such atrocities will face prosecution. The penalties could be very severe, but those charged will almost certainly be tried in civilian courts rather than in courts martial. They will certainly not appear before vague ad hoc tribunals charged, contentiously, with crimes against humanity or with war crimes.

The decision to send the police has caused concern among some Conservative MPs who feel that it is unfair - almost unpatriotic - to pillory soldiers for events that happened in the heat of a close-fought war against a particularly nasty fascist aggressor more than 10 years ago. Others argue that such investigations demonstrate a perverse set of priorities at a time when violent crime is on the increase in this country. A few suggest that the episode is an exercise designed to demonstrate goodwill to Argentina following the visit to that country of the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd.

The allegations of grave misbehaviour, which have surfaced periodically since the end of the conflict, are of two types. First, it is said that some Argentines captured at Goose Green were subsequently shot in retaliation for the death of the paratroop commander Colonel H Jones, and that other prisoners - possibly American mercenaries - were killed after the battle for Mount Longdon because they might have impeded the advance of British troops. Second, it is said that some British soldiers mutilated the bodies of dead Argentine soldiers by cutting off ears as trophies. Others supposedly posed for photographs with their arms around corpses that had cigarettes stuck in their mouths.

This country's obligations under Articles 120 and 121 of the Third Geneva Convention (1949) are unambiguous. If prisoners of war are killed in captivity, the country holding them 'shall' - not 'may' - investigate the incident, inform the protecting power of the results and prosecute those who allegedly commited the crimes.

There are many reasons for insisting that Britain honour its obligations under the Geneva Conventions. The most obvious is moral. Britain prides itself on not adhering to treaties unless it is prepared to abide by their terms. As for the fact that the Argentine junta was particularly odious, and given to treating its own dissidents appallingly, this was no excuse for any lowering of British standards. Indeed, it is the maintenance of civilised standards that differentiates democratic regimes from fascist dictatorships.

Finally, there is the pragmatic, or utilitarian argument: war is, by its nature, brutal and dehumanising, although it can generate acts of great gallantry and selflessness. Those in the front line have a vested interest in ensuring that standards are not debauched unnecessarily. If for no other reason than this, soldiers should treat their prisoners in a humane fashion in the hope that, in similar circumstances, they would be treated humanely. The authorities are correct to ensure that civilised norms are maintained.