The Australian military has long been known for its secretive and closed culture. So the announcement that the long-awaited Brereton report on Australian war crimes in Afghanistan will be released next week is a critical breakthrough in the struggle to obtain justice for Afghan victims of alleged war crimes.
On November 12, Australia’s government sought to preempt the report’s release by establishing a special investigator’s office to further investigate allegations including soldiers slitting the throats of children whose bodies were dumped in a river, and multiple cases of summary executions of detainees whose hands were bound.
Deploying a special investigator should ensure a prompt, thorough and impartial criminal investigation leading to appropriate criminal charges, but should not be the basis for further delays in obtaining justice.
In announcing the special investigator, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that “there is some disturbing conduct here, but we cannot then take that and apply to everyone who has pulled on a uniform.” That suggests that the alleged crimes were committed by “a few bad apples.”
But dozens of witnesses, including many soldiers who served in the units accused of these crimes, have described a disturbing regularity in the pattern of crimes committed, and a culture within the Australian military, especially the elite SAS special forces and the Commandos, in which this behavior was not only condoned but expected, and even celebrated.
Morrison warned that the report would be “difficult and hard news for Australians” and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds expressed concern about the psychological impact the findings would have on others in the military. But neither expressed concern for the Afghans waiting years for justice. For them, the consequences have been devastating. Families who happened to live in districts with a Taliban presence lost their children, their family’s breadwinner, their homes. Those who sought justice for these crimes were turned away.
Under international humanitarian law, the Australian government has an obligation to investigate alleged war crimes by its forces and appropriately prosecute those responsible. The Australian government should also provide compensation to victims of abuses or their survivors. By releasing the Brereton report in full, with minimal redactions, and ensuring justice is properly served, the Australian Defence Force leadership can draw a sharp line, making it clear that the age of cover-ups and impunity is over.