The Government has declared it will pursue those responsible for the “appalling” behaviour of Australian special forces soldiers in Afghanistan, including the murder of civilians.
The damning findings are outlined in a major report into alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan made public on Thursday.
The inquiry uncovered scores of instances of unlawful killings and inhumane treatment of detainees.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said “accountability will be the cornerstone of Defence’s response” to the report’s findings.
“This is crucial to maintaining the highest standards Australians expect of our military, reassuring confidence and trust, and learning from grave failings,” she said in a statement.
Since 2016, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force has examined allegations of war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
Over four years, Justice Paul Brereton interviewed more than 400 witnesses and examined tens of thousands of documents.
Australian Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell has now released the report.
Brereton found there was credible evidence of 23 incidents in which a total of 39 Afghan nationals were unlawfully killed.
He identified another two instances where prisoners were treated cruelly by elite Australian troops.
A few of the Afghan nationals killed were not participating in hostilities, while the majority were prisoners of war.
Brereton identified 25 current or former ADF personnel accused of perpetrating one or more war crimes.
The report covered the period from 2005 to 2016, but almost all of the incidents uncovered occurred between 2009 and 2013.
“None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle,” the report said.
“The cases in which it has been found that there is credible information of a war crime are ones in which it was or should have been plain that the person killed was a non-combatant.”
Dozens more allegations investigated could not be substantiated.
Justice Brereton also found there was credible evidence some soldiers carried “throw downs” such as weapons and military equipment, to make it appear the person killed was a legitimate target.
As well, there was evidence junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner in a practice known as “blooding” to achieve their first kill.
The inquiry has recommended the chief of defence refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation.
The matters relate to 23 incidents and involve 19 individuals.
Justice Brereton placed the greatest blame on patrol commanders, believing they were most responsible for inciting or directing subordinates to commit war crimes.
“It was at the patrol commander level that the criminal behaviour was conceived, committed, continued, and concealed, and overwhelmingly at that level that responsibility resides.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously announced a special investigator will pursue possible criminal prosecutions.
The position is yet to be filled.
The report recommended administrative action be taken against some serving ADF personnel where there is credible evidence of misconduct, but not enough for a criminal conviction.
It also recommended Australia compensate the families of Afghan people unlawfully killed, without waiting for criminal prosecutions.
“This will be an important step in rehabilitating Australia’s international reputation, in particular with Afghanistan, and it is simply the right thing to do.”
As well, the inquiry recommended various service medals be stripped away from some individuals and groups.
“It has to be said that what this report discloses is disgraceful and a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Force’s professional standards and expectations,” the report said.
“We embarked on this inquiry with the hope that we would be able to report that the rumours of war crimes were without substance.
“None of us desired the outcome to which we have come. We are all diminished by it.”
Save the Children says it is devastated to learn Australian soldiers may have committed atrocities against children in Afghanistan.
“We know that all wars are wars against children, but it is truly devastating to learn that there have been atrocities committed against children by Australian soldiers,” the group’s deputy chief executive Mat Tinkler said.
“Australia’s vigorous response to these heinous findings will demonstrate our nation’s commitment to upholding international humanitarian law, including the protection of children in war.”
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