Case of the Quarter:
The Brereton Report
By Sitarah Mohammadi and Sajjad Askary
The Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report (also known as the Brereton Report) has found credible evidence that 39 Afghan civilians, including children, were murdered, and two others subjected to cruel treatment by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan. The Report exposed a practice known as “blooding” of young special forces soldiers, in which they would be instructed by their patrol commander to murder a detainee to gain their “first kill”. The Defence Force Chief, General Angus Campbell, highlighted the Report’s finding that none of the alleged killings took place in the heat of the battle. The Report concluded that a culture of secrecy and cover-up pervaded Australia’s special forces
General Campbell apologised to the Afghan people, its leaders, and to the Australian people. His apology was heartfelt, and appropriate under the circumstances.
There are still about 80 Australian Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan, mostly involved in support and training. The Australian military, and indeed all international forces remaining in Afghanistan, have lessons to learn from the Report.
The alleged war crimes perpetrated against Afghan civilians by Australian special forces in Afghanistan highlight a deeply disturbing layer of racism and anti-Muslim sentiment that has pervaded in Australia. To some degree, this racism has been fuelled by Australian politicians over the past two decades, with Muslim refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan and other places being viewed as a threat and on occasion labelled as potential terrorists. Refugees and asylum seekers risking their lives on leaky boats have been portrayed in the most derogatory terms for political point-scoring. The overwhelming majority of Afghans seeking asylum in Australia have fled war, persecution and the brutality of perpetual violence and killings. They are merely in search of safety and protection – something that Australian forces were deployed to provide.
There are currently approximately 30,000 people currently on temporary visas in Australia, with thousands of these being Afghan nationals. Aside from their trauma, these people have been suffering from family separation, mental illness and visa restrictions for many years due to “deterrent” measures imposed by the Australian government. We must remember that they are human; the lucky ones who managed to escape the persecution and violence that has wracked Afghanistan for over four decades. Seeking asylum and safety is a fundamental human right.
The Report will no doubt prompt the Taliban to blame foreign forces for the death and suffering of Afghan civilians, particularly as they negotiate a political settlement with members of the Afghan government, notwithstanding the fact that the Taliban fighters have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in the past decades. The Taliban has never apologised or shown remorse for their own killings. They have always made it very clear that all international forces must withdraw from the country and they will likely call for the immediate removal of all Australian forces from the country. Further, it is a possibility that the remaining Australian personnel in Afghanistan may be under threat of retaliation by the Taliban or other militant groups.
The Report rightly recommends that the victims' families must be compensated. This must take many forms:
A direct apology should be made by Australian authorities to each of the victims’ families. A government-to-government apology does little to contribute to the healing process.
The problem of corruption within the Afghan government is undeniable. Any monetary compensation must be paid directly to the victims’ families.
Any monetary compensation is likely to provide only short-term support. The Australian government should consider resettlement pathways to Australia for the victims' families. This will provide security and protection, opportunities of education and employment, and a space for them to heal.
The Australian government, now and in the future, must commit to listening to Afghan victims’ demands for truth and justice. Therefore, the Office of the Special Investigator, set up by the Australian Government, should resource a committed victims unit to work directly with victims.
The United States and other NATO forces in Afghanistan should consider conducting investigations of their own forces’ involvement in potential war crimes.
It is now of the utmost importance that a criminal prosecution process be set up to ensure accountability. After four decades of Afghans fleeing violence in Afghanistan, this Report offers a step forward in the fight to end impunity for war crimes. We must seize this opportunity.
"Australian war crimes: the basics" from UQ's Law and the Future of War podcast series
“Australian Special Forces War Crimes Prosecutions: Crucial but Just One Aspect When It Comes to Respect for the Laws of War” by Eve Massingham
Sitarah Mohammadi is a graduate of International Relations and Human Rights from Monash University. She spent 2019 as a Provost Scholar at the University of Oxford, undertaking studies in International Relations and Politics, and completed a dissertation on Australia’s refugee policy. Currently, she is undertaking her Juris Doctor (Law) at Monash University’s Law School. She can be found on Twitter @sitarah_m.
Sajjad Askary is a Bachelor of Arts graduate (majoring in International Relations and Human Rights), and a current student of Juris Doctor (Law) at Monash University’s Law School. He can be found on Twitter @AskarySajjad.