An international investigation has been launched into the mysterious disappearance of Dutch Second World War shipwrecks which have vanished from the bottom of the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia. In a press statement on 15 November, the Dutch Defence Ministery has confirmed that the wrecks of two of its warships that sank in 1942, the HNLMS De Ruyter (see photo) and HNLMS Java, have completely gone, while large parts of a third, the HNLMS Kortenaer, are also missing. The wrecks were first found intact by amateur divers in 2002. But a new expedition to mark next year's 75 anniversary of the Battle of the Java Sea discovered the ships were missing. While sonar shows the imprints of the wrecks on the ocean floor, the ships themselves are no longer there. As about 915 Dutch nationals and 259 Indonesian people died in the Battle, the wrecks have been declared war graves. The Dutch Defence Ministry immediateley launched an investigation as to what happened to the wrecks, suggesting the wrecks may have been illegally salvaged for the scrap metal market.

The Battle of the Java Sea

karel-doormanThe Battle was a decisive, but not a much known naval battle of the Pacific campaign of World War II. A hastily assembled squadron of Allied warships suffered a disastrous defeat at the hand of the Imperial Japanese Navy on 27 February 1942, and in secondary actions over successive days. The American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) Strike Force commander, Dutch Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman (see photo), who is considered a war hero in The Netherlands, was killed. The aftermath of the battle included several smaller actions around Java, including the smaller but also significant Battle of Sunda Strait. These defeats led to the Japanese occupation of the entire Netherlands East Indies. At the time, the battle was the largest surface ship engagement since the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

Illegal scavenging of Allied WWII shipwrecks

Only a year before, on 29 October 2015, government and navy officials from Indonesia, Australia, Great Britain and the United States had gathered in Jakarta to continue their efforts to protect and preserve sunken sovereign vessels in the Java Sea, many of which are considered WWII war graves. As American Naval Attaché, Captain Mark Stacpoole, said: "This year's conference was another opportunity to raise awareness about the efforts to protect and preserve these war wrecks. The close collaboration will enable us to unify our efforts to maintain recognition and respect for these final resting places of our service members who, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, 'gave the last full measure of devotion'". During the conference meetings, participants provided background information on their protection efforts. They also collaborated on other ways to create and sustain awareness to dissuade criminal activities, such as illegal scavenging, recognizing there are mutual national interest in doing so.

A day after the Dutch Defence Ministry's press statement, on 16 November 2015, national British daily newspaper The Guardian reported that three British ships and a US submarine have been plundered by illegal scrap metal scavengers. All four sank during operations in the Java Sea in 1942. A preliminary report from an expedition to document sunken warships, seen by the newspaper, shows that the wrecks of the HMS Exeter, the HMS Encounter have been almost totally removed. Another ship, the HMS Electra, had also been scavenged, although a 'sizeable section' of the wreck remained. The US submarine Perch, had been totally removed, the report stated. In a statement the British Ministery of Defence said that the Government had contacted Indonesian authorities to express 'serious concern' and request they investigate and take 'appropriate action to protect the sites from any further disturbance'.

Reactions, criticism and action to be taken

The illegal scavenging of war wrecks has caused significant upset among veterans, historians and governments who want to preserve the final resting place of sailors who went down with their ships. Indonesia has initially refused to take blame for what happened to the disappeared WWII war wrecks, arguing that the country could not be expected to protect them without assistance. Bambang Budi Utomo, head of the Indonesian National Archeological Centre, said 'that the Dutch government cannot blame the Indonesian government because they never asked us to protect those wrecks. As there is no agreement or announcement, when the ships go missing, it is not our responsibility'. In a response Indonesia's Navy said 'the ships should not have been disturbed, but it was not our responsibility to protect them. The Navy cannot monitor all areas all the time'. But following a meeting on 23 November with the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte stated that Jakarta agreed to cooperate with The Netherlands in getting to the bottom of the mystery.

In Britain, the government has been criticized of not doing enough to stop undersea looting. Andy Brockman, archeologist and researcher in maritime crime, said that the Ministry of Defence considers the protection and preservation of these war wrecks to be too difficult and too expensive. This example of illegal scavenging should spur to international action, led by the governments of Britain, Australia, The Netherlands and the USA, Brockman stated, because it is ever more clear that this attitude is not acceptable to the public, not least to veterans and their families. In a reaction, the Ministry stated that 'given the vast locations of Royal Navy wrecks around the world, there are limitations on what protection we can provide, but where we have evidence of desecration of these site, we will take appropriate action'.

hms-encounterThe Commonwealth War Graves Commision stated that the war wrecks in the Java Sea were not formally designated as war graves. In the United Kingdom, only 67 ship wrecks and all underwater military aircraft are "protected places" under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 which imposes restrictions on their exploration and marine salvage. The law concerning "protected places" applies anywhere in the world, but in practice, outside the UK, the sanctions can only be enforced against UK citizens, UK flagged ships, or vessels landing in the UK, unless backed by local legislation. In the List of designations under the Act there is no mentioning of the HMS Exeter, the HMS Encounter (see photo), and the HMS Electra. A last resort for protection, Andy Brockman has suggested, is invoking the International Convention on Salvage, London, 28 April 1989. Wrecks are considered the property of the Flag State in which they were registered. Under this convention it is illegal to remove scrap without official permission.

Next Blog

The status in international law of operational warships has been long established. In contrast, the status of such vessels after they have sunk has been, and remains, a matter of considerable uncertainty. In 2007, the Institut de Droit International decided to look into the matter. It is certainly the case that the international regime appertaining to the wrecks warships and other State-owned ships is in serious need of clarification, as well as progressive development. On 29 August 2015, at its 77th Session held in Tallinn, Estonia, the Institut de Droit International adopted a resolution on the 'Legal Regime of Wrecks of Warships and Other State-owned Ships in International Law'. To be continued in February 2017.

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