On Thursday the 19th of November, Australia released a long-awaited report into alleged war crimes committed by Australian forces in Afghanistan. This report, the result of an inquiry launched in 2016, found evidence that Australian special forces responsible for 39 unlawful killings during deployment in Afghanistan.
General Angus Campbell, chief of the Australian Defence Force, said that the four-year investigation found evidence that Australian special forces personnel had killed prisoners, farmers, or other civilians, and offered his apologies to the people of Afghanistan. Campbell told media that the report “found there to be credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 Australian special forces personnel predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment.” The report itself also noted that it had probably failed to uncover all wrongdoing that had occurred during deployment. “We embarked on this inquiry in the hope that we would be able to report that the rumours of war crimes were without substance,” the report said, drawing attention to the fact that all but two of the team were serving members of the defence forces. “None of us desired the outcome to which we have come. We are all diminished by it.”
This inquiry was launched in 2016, following allegations from whistle-blowers and local media. The inquiry has found that 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel were involved in serious crimes while deployed in Afghanistan. These personnel were either carrying out the offences, or were “accessories” to the incidents. The report recommends that a total of 36 incidents, some with multiple victims, be referred to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) for criminal investigation. Furthermore, of the 25 personnel involved, the inquiry concludes that there are 19 who should be investigated by Australian police. These 19 individuals are allegedly responsible for the murder of 39 noncombatants, and the cruel treatment of two others. Disturbing evidence also reveals that in some cases, weapons were planted on the victims, and at other times, junior soldiers were forced to shoot prisoners for a “first kill” as part on an initiation known as “blooding”. These incidents took place between 2009 and 2013.
The United States is also under investigation for possible war crimes in Afghanistan, after the International Criminal Court authorized an investigation earlier this year. Alongside this, allegations of war crimes against Afghan and Taliban armed fighters will be investigated, to determine the extent of criminal action which has occurred during the conflict in Afghanistan. There has also been a call from New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager for New Zealand to launch its own investigation into the conduct of its special forces in the wake of the Australian revelations.
The perpetration of war crimes, particularly the extrajudicial killing of noncombatants, is a clear violation of international law. However, it is reassuring that the Australian government and Defence Force are taking the allegations seriously. The appointment of a special investigator by the Australian government is a welcome first step, as are calls from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force for the establishment of a compensation fund. While financial compensation can never replace the lives that were lost, it may provide some assistance for the families of the victims. However, the case is not over yet. It is crucial that the world continue to keep their eyes on the Australian investigation, to ensure that those who committed these crimes are held accountable. Too often, war crimes can go unpunished.
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