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Australia: Ensure Justice for Alleged War Crimes

Independent Investigations, Swift Reparations, Protection for Whistleblowers

Chief of the Australian Defence Force Gen. Angus Campbell delivers the findings from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry, in Canberra, November 19, 2020. © 2020 Mick Tsikas/Pool Photo via AP

(Sydney) – The Australian government should ensure that the new Office of the Special Investigator advances justice for alleged war crimes by Australian military personnel in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The Office of the Special Investigator was announced on November 12, 2020, before the public release of the military’s Brereton report.

The Brereton report found credible information of 23 incidents of unlawful killing of 39 people by Australian special forces that could be war crimes. The Special Investigator’s Office should have adequate resources, be independent from military and political influence, and be authorized to investigate all those in the chain of command implicated in grave abuses.

“Australia’s Special Investigator’s Office should be protected against interference in its operations, including its budget and any improper influence, as with other criminal investigations,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “It should seek accountability both for those who directly committed these heinous acts, but also those liable as a matter of command responsibility.”

While the Brereton report recommends offering immunity from prosecution to certain soldiers in exchange for their evidence to assist prosecutions, any immunity provided should be consistent with the countries’ obligations under international humanitarian law to investigate and appropriately prosecute war crimes by their forces, Human Rights Watch said. International humanitarian law also prohibits amnesties for war crimes.

Prime Minister Morrison recently said that the government was not currently considering compensation for Afghans harmed by these incidents. The government should provide adequate and swift reparations to the Afghan victims of abuses and their families, without waiting for the conclusion of criminal proceedings, and ensure that Afghans can effectively bring civil claims concerning abuses in Australian courts, Human Rights Watch said.

The Attorney-General's Department should drop the prosecution of the former military lawyer and whistleblower David McBride, whose disclosures have been vindicated by the Brereton report.

“Prompt and adequate payments to the victims or their families is not only the decent thing to do, it’s required under international law,” Pearson said. “The continued unjust prosecution of the whistleblower David McBride is a chilling warning to others who may wish to come forward.”

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