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Australia must investigate war crimes allegations, says ADF chief | The Strategist

Australia must investigate war crimes allegations, says ADF chief

Investigating allegations that Australian soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan is ‘utterly critical’ to the nation regaining moral authority at home and with its allies, says Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell.


‘And not just the question of investigating but dealing more broadly with the breadth of the cultural professional issues that emerge as much as dealing with the investigations,’ General Campbell tells The Strategist. ‘Our operational capability is in large part about our capacity to win the friends and partners who will stand with us in conflict.’


In March 2016, Campbell, then Chief of Army, asked the Inspector-General of the ADF to inquire into what were then unsubstantiated stories of illegal killings and inhumane and unlawful treatment of detainees over a lengthy time in the course of Special Operations Task Group deployments in Afghanistan.


‘We need to be a force that people want to serve in, but also to join with in partnership across nations. We have never fought alone. We never want to fight alone. What a tragedy if because of real or perceived lapses in our military conduct we found ourselves alone.

‘So, while there was never any suggestion that that would be the case in this particular circumstance, that’s the kind of impact an ill-considered approach to your own behaviour can have on building the kinds of partnerships we want if we are to deter and defend and to build that idea of a free, open, stable, prosperous community of nations in which Australia and Australians are secure.’


Campbell’s 2016 brief to the inspector-general included an examination of ‘the cultural normalisation of deviance from professional standards within Special Operations Command (SOCOMD), including intentional inaccuracy in operational reporting related to possible crimes; a culture of silence within SOCOMD; the deliberate undermining, isolation and removal from SOCOMD units of some individuals who tried to address this rumoured conduct and culture; and a systemic failure, including of commanders and legal officers at multiple levels within the command, to report or investigate the stories as required by Defence policies’.


These issues were raised with Campbell by the then SOCOMD chief, Major General Jeff Sengelman, and civilian sociologist Dr Samantha Crompvoets.


After a four-year investigation, 25 soldiers stood accused of murdering 39 unarmed Afghan civilians or prisoners and cruelly treating two others.


The inquiry, led by New South Wales Supreme Court judge Paul Brereton, a major general in the Army Reserve, found credible information about 23 incidents in which non-combatants or prisoners were unlawfully killed by or at the direction of Australian soldiers in circumstances that, if accepted by a jury, would constitute the war crime of murder.

Some of those incidents involved a single victim and some multiple victims.


If the crimes alleged to have occurred in Afghanistan were carried out in Australia, the perpetrators would be numbered among the nation’s worst serial killers.


Teams of Australian investigators have gathered evidence in Australia and in Afghanistan and one man has been charged so far.


Australia has done more than any of its coalition allies in Afghanistan to uncover what was done by some of its troops there, including establishing the Office of the Special Investigator, and to take steps to ensure that such crimes are not repeated on future operations.


Australia is a state party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. But, consistent with the complementarity principle, Australia has the primary competence and authority to investigate or prosecute war crimes under its national laws. If a state party is unwilling or unable to genuinely investigate or prosecute, the court’s prosecutor may be able to step in and carry out its own investigation.


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