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Falklands / Malvinas conflict: ICRC action for prisoners of war

23-04-2007 Interview

When Argentina and the United Kingdom went to war over the Falkland / Malvinas Islands in 1982, Edmond Corthésy was head of the ICRC's regional delegation in Buenos Aires. From the mainland, he directed all the activities that the organization carried out in connection with the conflict. In the following interview, he recalls some of those activities, especially the ICRC's efforts to assist prisoners of war.


  Edmond Corthésy  
     What was the focus of the ICRC's action during the conflict in the South Atlantic?  

Our main activity was to visit prisoners of war, on land and at sea.

We had access to all prisoners held in Port Stanley / Puerto Argentino, including senior officers, such as the commander-in-chief of the Argentine armed forces in the Falklands / Malvinas 1 . We also visited and registered some 500 officers held on board a ferry, the St Edmund, where one of our delegates remained until the last prisoner was freed in July 1982. In addition, the ICRC paid several visits to a British pilot captured in combat, who had been transferred to the mainland and was being held at an air base in north-eastern Argentina, near La Rioja. The pilot was later transferred to Montevideo, Uruguay, under the auspices of the ICRC, and handed over to the British authorities 2 .

During our visits, we registered the prisoners, taking down their personal details. Of course we also monitored their state of health and their conditions of detention from a humanitarian point of view.

During the Falklands / Malvinas conflict, the ICRC:  
  • visited and registered 11,692 prisoners of war;
  • delivered 800 Red Cross messages;
  • carried out preventive activities on the mainland and in the islands;
  • deployed a team of 11 expatriates, including three doctors, who worked together with local employees in Buenos Aires and delegates in Geneva.
  • On 18 March 1991, some 10 years after the war had ended, 358 relatives of fallen Argentine soldiers visited the graves of their loved ones in the Falkands / Malvinas, under ICRC auspices.
  • Today, the ICRC continues to issue prisoner-of-war certificates for veterans seeking recognition of their pension entitlements.

  From May to July 1982, we registered a total of over 11,000 Argentine troops captured by British forces. We filled out forms on each person, in compliance with the Third Geneva Convention, and provided copies to the Argentine authorities.

The ICRC also facilitated various prisoner-release operations, some during the hostilities and others afterwards.

 Did you take part in any of those operations yourself?  

Yes, at the end of the conflict, when more than 4,000 prisoners of war arrived in Puerto Madryn, Argentine Patagonia, on board a British ship. I flew to Madryn from Buenos Aires at the end of June, using a helicopter provided by the Argentine armed forces. On board the ship, I spoke with both British officers and Argentine soldiers. We had to complete the registration process as the prisoners began to disembark since, for various reasons, we had not been able to collect all the necessary details in the Falklands / Malvinas …

The ICRC's role in such situations is that of neutral intermediary. In Argentina, we facilitated contacts between the parties to the conflict and organized the handover of prisoners of war to the Argentine government. Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, all parties to a conflict – in this case Argentina and the United Kingdom – must free their prisoners without delay once the active hostilities are over.

 What other activities did the ICRC conduct in relation to the conflict?  

On the day the hostilities broke out, the ICRC sent a note to the parties reminding them of their obligations, under the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, during international armed conflicts.

The delegation in Buenos Aires kept in constant touch with the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the joint chiefs of staff of the Argentine armed forces in order to deal with any humanitarian problems arising in connection with the conflict, such as access to the conflict zone, the notification and identification of hospital ships and the exchange of prisoners of war and wounded. As for ICRC headquarters, it maintained close relations with the permanent mission of the United Kingdom in Geneva and the various ministries concerned in London.

From the outset of the conflict, the two countries demonstrated their commitment to international humanitarian and their willingness to comply with its provisions.

For instance, both parties invited the ICRC to visit the six hospital ships that were active during the conflict, enabling us to make sure that each one was clearly identifiable in conformity with the provisions of the Second Geneva Convention.

The conflict in the South Atlantic marked the first time that the Second Geneva Convention, relative to conflict at sea, was implemented. At the direct request of the Argentine authorities, I personally visited the ship Bahía Paraíso in the port of Buenos Aires before it set off for the conflict zone.

ICRC delegates first reached the Falkland / Malvinas Islands on board a British hospital ship on 10 June. They had intended to set out earlier from Patagonia but that unfortunately proved impossible owing to various problems related to the conflict. 

One of the reasons we wanted to go to the islands was to facilitate the setting up of a neutral zone, as defined in the Geneva Conventions. A perimeter was established around the church in Port Stanley / Puerto Argentino where civilians could find safety in case fighting broke out in the capital. This was fortunately not the case and the war soon ended.

ICRC delegates served as neutral intermediaries between Argentina and the United Kingdom during negotiations over the establishment of the zone. The two sides reached an agreement in writing, in conformity with the Conventions, a rare occurrence in the history of international humanitarian law.


 Notes :  

1.The denomination " Falklands / Malvinas " corresponds to ICRC policy: wherever a disputed territory is given different names by the parties concerned, the ICRC uses those names together, in French alphabetical order, rather than choosing one of them, which does not come within its purview.

2. A number of British troops and civilians who had been captured by the Argentine armed forces at the beginning of the conflict in the South Atlantic were handed over to the British authorities in Montevideo. Although the ICRC was concerned about the fate of prisoners of war from th e start of the conflict, it did not take part in the repatriation operations.  In 1991 the families of Argentine soldiers who died in battle were able to visit the graves of their loved ones for the first time. See also interview with E. Corthésy.