Governments everywhere should be closely following the recent war crime charge brought against a former Australian soldier.
In a joint statement, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Office of the Special Investigator (OSI) said it will be alleged that the soldier murdered an Afghan man while deployed to Afghanistan with the Australian Defence Force. It is a significant development in justice and accountability, the likes of which have never been seen in Australia.
This is an important opportunity for authorities to uphold the rule of law by ensuring respect for the fair trial rights of the accused, including the presumption of innocence of any individual charged with a criminal offense, and ensuring accountability for war crimes.
The incident connected to the charge first gained widespread public attention on March 16, 2020 when it was featured in an episode of ABC’s Four Corners. The report exposed possible war crimes by Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) members against Afghan civilians and captured combatants in Afghanistan in 2012.
The Four Corners program placed even greater public attention on the Independent Afghanistan Inquiry (known as the Brereton Inquiry) that was taking place at the time. Following the November 2020 release of the Brereton Report, the Australian government established an Office of the Special Investigator (OSI) to further investigate the dozens of incidents identified in the report.
This first arrest in Australia stemming from a joint OSI and AFP investigation is a significant step towards accountability. It sends a powerful message to all Australia’s armed forces that Australia is taking its responsibility to investigate and prosecute war crimes seriously, consistent with the country’s commitments as a member of the International Criminal Court. It should be backed by continuing efforts to identify and hold to account all those in the direct and indirect chain of command.
The charge should also have significant international resonance. It sets a striking example for other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. For the most part, coalition countries are yet to afford meaningful accountability for abuses committed by their personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond.