MEMORANDUM REGARDING DESECRATION OF WAR GRAVES AT SEA
By the assembled members of the ISA (International Community of Submariners Associations) at the 51st convention in Athens.
Wrecks of sunken warships and submarines have recently been salvaged and plundered on a large scale for collectable items and scrap metal, with disregard of the remains of the crew.
There is irrefutable evidence (including photos and videos obtained by onsite inspections) that several warships and submarines of different nationalities sunk during World War 2 in the Pacific theatre of war have recently been severely damaged or have disappeared completely. What happened to the remains of the deceased crewmembers is unknown.
This is an affront to the people who gave their lives in service of their country.
At their official congress meeting 2014 the Heads of Delegation of the International Submariners Associations unanimously condemned these practices. Basically it is considered theft since these wrecks are legally the property of the flag states. Especially worrisome is the practice by unscrupulous scrap metal dealers to salvage these wrecks for financial gain, with total disregard for the deceased that lie in them. They should be left to rest in peace in their grave at sea.
War graves on land are protected and cherished. Children adopt the graves, memorials are well kept and war graves foundations all over the world are heavily subsidized.
Our war dead at sea deserve the same consideration and respect.
The members of the ISA call on all governments and relevant international organizations
- To put an end to these practices and endeavour to come to an international recognized legal protection regime for these graves at sea.
If salvage of a wreck is required for compelling reasons:
- This should be decided in consultation with the flag state of the designated shipwreck, with consideration for the relatives of the crew.
- If there are still remains of the crew in a wreck a burial should take place at a graveyard to be selected by the flag state, if possible in dialogue with the relatives.
Subject: Memorandum Desecration of War Graves at Sea
Dear ISA Friends,
At the impressive memorial service in Athens last May, the Head of Delegation of the Netherlands, Captain Rtd Ruurd van Rooijen, mentioned the illegal salvage of war graves at sea by scrap metal dealers. His plea for protection was graciously seconded by our Greek hosts and followed up by the other Heads of Delegations, for which we are very grateful. As you know, this resulted in the Memorandum Desecration of War Graves at Sea of the ISA.
Since then many developments have happened, about which ISA/NL would like to inform you ahead of our coming ISA Congress.
The situation in the Netherlands:
In 2006 the Netherlands Foundation Relatives Submariners 1940-1945, became aware that our war graves at sea have no legal status compared to the war graves on land. They are not protected by law or treaty. We were surprised but not particularly alarmed because we knew that the wrecks of the submarines which were frequented by divers were treated with respect. The local fishing community was happy with the marine life and it helped to provide their families with income.
However, we did start investigations about how the formal status of the wrecks could be improved. To our astonishment we learned that even in maritime circles the awareness of the fact that war graves at sea are not protected, was hardly present. But, we took it for granted that a decent treatment of our war dead at sea was as natural as on land, and the need to take action was not imminent.
This changed radically in October 2013, when Vidar Skogli, the skipper who found our WWII submarine KXVI in 2011, photographed the illegal salvage of our submarine O16. He and Dr Andrew Fock, our Australian contact, also informed us about the plundering of wrecks of other nations. An investigation initiated by our Foundation confirmed the destruction of not only O16, but our WWII submarine KXVII was also badly damaged. Sadly the desecration of wrecks of all nations is continuing at an alarming rate.
Last year we brought you up to date in a letter by Ruurd van Rooijen that we sent you together with the Memorandum.
In the Netherlands, protection of wrecks in general has been on the agenda but this was for other i.e. ecological, educational and historical reasons.
Many organizations are involved: Divers, the fishing community and the Ministries of Finance, Foreign affairs, Education, Infrastructure and Environment, Economic Affairs. Strangely enough, the Ministry of Defence was NOT included anywhere. The decision trees of all these activities did not include which actions should be taken if human remains might be present in these wrecks. And no special distinction was made for the wrecks of WWII warships.
We are happy to inform you that lately a change has occurred, at least in the willingness to listen to our pleas, in the awareness of the situation, and in some tangible and important steps forward.
- The Governments of Cambodia and Malaysia have been informed by our government and have ensured us that they take the matter seriously.
- A navigation light and other items that were illegally removed from one of our submarines and other warships and put up at a sale in Australia, were returned to the Netherlands. They were presented by the Australian Embassy to the Commander of the Royal Netherlands Navy during a ceremony at the Submariners Museum in Den Helder, and have found their way to the respective museums.
- One of the guests present at the ISA convention in Greece, Tarek Buchmueller, German Attorney at Law, drew our attention to the possibility of presenting a case, or asking for advice, from ITLOS (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea) in Hamburg. Mr Buchmueller took the necessary steps and is in contact with ITLOS and other relevant institutions together with ISA/NL and our Foundation Relatives 1940-1945. We are very grateful for his help.
- Other ISA members have also expressed their support for initiatives in their countries.
- Questions in Parliament instigated by former MP Captain Rtd Jan Willem van Waning, resulted in answers by our Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs.
- The Netherlands Ministry of Defence will now be included on a permanent basis in the governmental consultative bodies; the decision tree will be extended with actions to be taken to ensure a decent treatment of human remains in war graves at sea.
- The ISA Memorandum and the support of the International Submariners Associations were met with great interest by our governmental institutions with respect to their international contacts about this matter.
- The Netherlands salvage industry has been informed of our worries and is aware of the impact on the relatives.
- The President of our Foundation Submariners 1940-1945, Rear Admiral Rtd Jan Spoelstra and I were invited for a meeting with the Ambassador for International Cultural Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This resulted in a meeting with the Interdepartmental Wreck Committee and an invitation for a rewarding meeting with the Governmental Institute for Cultural Inheritance to brainstorm about practical possibilities to protect ships from being looted or destroyed.
- Actions taken by one of our board members, Commander Res. Jouke Spoelstra (not related to Jan Spoelstra), have resulted in the fact that our Foundation has also been consulted and invited to sign a combined treaty on the protection of wrecks in the North Sea.
There is still a long road ahead but at least we are being heard.
Please keep us informed of possible developments in your countries.
For ISA Netherlands
Secretary of ISA/NL and
The Netherlands Foundation Relatives Submariners 1940-1945
28th April 2015
- Memorandum Desecration War Graves at Sea
- Letter 2014
To the members of the International Community of Submariners Associations.
Dear ISA friends,
At the meeting of the ISA Heads of Delegations in Athens on May 30th 2014, our host, Vice Admiral Raditsas, kindly agreed to bring forward our plea for an international legal regime on the protection of war graves at sea.
We would like to inform you about the present situation:
The large scale plundering and illegal salvaging of several war graves at sea by scrap metal dealers, without any concern for the remains of the crew, has been confirmed and we have obtained indisputable evidence by video and photographs of the allegations. This recent full-scale desecration of the resting places of our war dead came as a surprise and a shock to us. An Australian report in October 2013 about the destruction of one of our submarines HNLMS/M O16 and the information about several other warships has made us painfully aware of the situation.
We now have obtained independent reports and confirmation about the plundering and in some cases complete destruction or even disappearance of several wrecks all over the South China Sea. Most of this has happened in the past months. This is not restricted to the Asian waters but due to the prices of high quality metals and scrap metal has become common practice. This can happen or is already happening to your own submarines and other vessels.
Considerable damage has also been reported about HM Ships Exeter, Electra, Encounter, Prince of Wales and Repulse, USS Pope, HMAS Perth, the Japanese Cruisers Haguro and Kuma. Recently reports have been coming in about salvage attempts of other ships including a commercial British ship that had families on board, with children and babies. This is why it is crucial we all press for international action.
There are occasions where the salvage of a war ship is necessary. This is acceptable. However, this should be done with respect for the dead, if possible with a short ceremony and in case there are still remains of the crew, these should be brought back to their respective countries. The circulation on internet of photographs of the skull of a crewmember of a submarine found last year in Indonesian waters (the remains of 17 bodies were still in the boat) is a nightmare to all relatives.
War graves on land are protected. Every country has their organization, sometimes heavily subsidized. Children adopt graveyards; politicians visit the memorials and bring tribute to the dead. Relatives can bring flowers to the graves and there are annual services.
For the warships this is different. Even more so for the boats and ships that are “still-on-patrol”
Countries have been engaged in war and, unfortunately, there will be conflicts in the future. Accidents also happen; men and women are killed and will be killed while serving their countries. We owe it to all of them, the deceased of the past and maybe of the future, that they can rest in peace.
What we would like to accomplish is:
- Awareness of the problem and an international approach.
- Internationally supported protocols for the protection of (war) graves at sea.
- Agreements with official ship salvaging companies about a proper and respectful approach if salvage is necessary.
How can we achieve this?
- Inform your government, your politicians, ask them if they are aware of the situation and ask for an official answer.
- Inform the defense attachés of your country.
- Investigate what is happening to the war graves of your own country.
- Ask for legal support
In the attachment a concept memorandum is included for presentation.
Actions that have been taken:
- One of the barges that has illegally been involved in at least 5 cases of plundering and salvaging has very recently been detained and impounded.
- Navigation lights and other items have been removed by treasure divers from submarines (and other warships) sunk during World War 2 in the Pacific theatre of war. These items were put up for sale at an auction in Australia. Swift action of the Australian authorities resulted in the withdrawal from the auction of these stolen items. They will be returned to the flag state.
We are very grateful for your support and for keeping us informed about the activities you or your contacts have undertaken, so we can possibly facilitate international actions.
Given their sacrifice our war dead deserve our support.
If you need more information please let us know.
Ruurd van Rooijen( Captain RNLN Rtd)
Chairman ISA Netherlands