Report Finds Australian Special Forces Murdered 39 Afghan Citizens While Involved in Peacekeeping Operations

A report commissioned by the Australian Defence Force implicated members of the Australian special forces, particularly personnel from the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), in the murder of 39 Afghan civilians. The report, which followed a four-year investigation by Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton, documented 23 incidents in which members of the SASR executed people, all of whom were non-combatants. Under Article Three Of the 1950 Geneva Convention, murder or cruel treatment against non-combatants, including persons who have laid down their arms – be they prisoners of war or otherwise – constitutes a war crime under international law. While the report did not uncover sufficient evidence for charges to be laid in a court of law, the report recommended that 19 members of the armed forces be investigated as participants or accessories by an independent body. The killings, which took place between 2009 and 2013, included members of the SASR beating one unarmed civilian to death and setting a dog on another during a raid, using a surrendered prisoner as ‘target practice’, and an alleged report from a US marine that Australian soldiers shot a prisoner because there “wasn’t enough space in the helicopter [for him].” Some murders were used as opportunities for junior soldiers to commit their ‘first kill’, in a practice known as “blooding”. Officials often engaged in the practice of ‘throwdowns’, in which officers would plant ‘evidence’ such as cell phones or weapons on the bodies to make it look as though they had been killed in combat.

Justice Brereton and his team interviewed 423 witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of documentation during the four-year investigation. Brereton said that the investigation was as prolonged as it was due to a “closed, closely-bonded and highly compartmentalized Special Forces community”. The 521-page report documented 23 incidents that resulted in death as well as two additional cases in which inhumane treatment was applied. 25 members of the armed forces were implicated either directly or as accessories, 19 of whom were recommended to be investigated and potentially charged. Australian Defence Force (ADF) chief General Angus Campbell stated that “none of the incidents could be described as being in the heat of battle”, meaning all 23 cases were therefore “deliberate, repeated and targeted war crimes”.

The violence was found to be perpetrated and concealed on a patrol commanders level and reinforced by a “cone of silence” and the perception that the SASR is above reproach. The report concluded that a culture of egoism and entitlement contributed to the offences and condemned the “warrior culture” that resulted in the dehumanization and murder of Afghan civilians. High-ranking officials were effectively cleared of responsibility, a decision that has been contested by current and previous members of the armed forces. One former veteran stated that “there is no way, if you are a good officer, that you don’t know what is going on with your troop or squadron or regiment.” Another remarked that commanders routinely drank with their men, despite a ban on alcohol on the base, and as such are aware of the culture. There is also some speculation that officials chose not to notice the unlawful killings, as a “previous report conducted by the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) described a kind of “organizational blindness” to the actions of the special forces”.

ADF chief Campbell expressed his dismay at the findings, saying “such alleged behaviour profoundly disrespected the trust placed in us by the Afghan people who had asked us to their country to help them [and] caused immeasurable pain and suffering to the lives of Afghan families and communities.” He also expressed his condolences for the actions of the SASR to Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan. The ADF will be implementing an individual task force to decide whether the government will move forward with criminal charges. As per the recommendations of the report, he also announced that Australia would implement an independent oversight body to investigate claims of war crimes and unjust treatment, and announced they would establish a fund so that families of the victims could be financially compensated prior to a conviction in a court of law. Elaine Pearson, Australia Director at the Human Rights Watch commended the government on this step, stating that “Afghans have waited many years for this report to come out [but] shouldn’t have to wait many years for justice.” She also emphasized the importance of an independent body that is able to investigate claims without political interference.

Campbell announced that he had accepted all 143 of Brereton’s recommendations, which included suggestions regarding culture, accountability, and governance in the military, in order to “set things right.” Current and previous members of the armed forces also spoke out against soldiers being sent out on multiple rotations, saying it was detrimental and could contribute to a mindset that justified violent action. While awareness is a start, it is imperative that perpetrators be held criminally responsible and the victims and their families be given justice. The ADF must address the “warrior culture” present within the SASR, and fight against the dehumanization of Afghan citizens. Accountability and oversight must also be prioritized, and the ‘culture of secrecy’ within the armed forces should be removed. All accusations of unjust treatment at the hands of the military must be investigated by an independent body, and the perpetrators held accountable in a court of law.

Kailey Ouellette