The Australian government released a report on November 19 documenting war crimes committed by Australian Defense Forces (ADF) in Afghanistan. The report was part of a four-year long inquiry, led by Major General Justice Paul Brereton of the Australian Army Reserve, that investigated reports of the extrajudicial killing of civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers between 2005 to2016.
The inquiry found that the ADF created a “warrior culture” among its soldiers, leading to practices such as allowing junior soldiers to kill prisoners in initiation rituals, known as “blooding,” reports BBC News. The inquiry also found that 39 Afghans were unlawfully killed across 23 separate incidents, with soldiers placing weapons and contraband on the corpses to make them look like enemy combatants. However, many of these victims were regular farmers or prisoners of war. ADF Chief General Angus Campbell says that none of these events could be “described as being in the heat of battle” and that members of the Special Air Service (SAS) had taken “the law into their own hands,” BBC News furthers.
Afghan civilians have confirmed these allegations to journalists for many years. In an interview with Al Jazeera, one Afghan villager described an attack on his home by SAS forces, saying, “He saw the dog tearing away at my brother, but before we knew it, they were both shot dead, right there in our home.” The Australian Broadcast Corporation first exposed human rights abuses by the ADF back in 2017, reporting “at least 10 incidents between 2009-2013 in which special forces troops shot dead insurgents including unarmed men and children.”
The Guardian also obtained graphic pictures of Australian soldiers drinking beer out of the prosthetic leg of a dead Taliban fighter. SAS forces reportedly flaunted the prosthetic as a war trophy and drinking from the prosthetic became a common practice among the squadron as it was taken with them on all missions. The Department of Defense denied having any knowledge of these pictures and announced it will prosecute soldiers involved.
On Nov. 27, the ADF notified 13 special forces soldiers that their services were being terminated as a result of the Brereton Report, according to Al Jazeera. The report recommended that 19 soldiers be investigated for their roles in potential war crimes and that a total of 25 soldiers could be prosecuted for these actions or being accessories to the crimes. A special investigator has been appointed to determine whether to go forward with prosecutions, but an investigation would likely take years.
General Campbell also announced that the Special Operations Task Group, which served in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2013, would be stripped of their “meritorious group citation.” After Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed his “deepest sorrow” to the Afghan government, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission stated that the report was “a good step but it must be followed up with proper prosecution and compensation and attention to victims and their families.”
The international community has unanimously condemned the actions of the ADF. A Chinese official tweeted a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s throat and saying “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!,” according to Vox. This is an escalation of ongoing tensions between Australia and China who are currently engaged in a trade war. Australia has been a prominent critic of China’s human rights violations and became one of the first countries to call for an international investigation into China’s handling of COVID-19.
While Australia was the first to release an inquiry into abuses by soldiers in Afghanistan, many journalists believe that the U.S. and the UK have perpetrated similar abuses. In 1993, Canada released an inquiry into army abuses in Somalia, which were almost identical to those found in the Brereton Report. Canada’s inquiry resulted in the prosecution of soldiers for war crimes and the disbandment of Canada’s elite Airborne Regiment. Former Canadian Defense Minister David Colenette told The Guardian that they disbanded the entire unit because their report “revealed a systemic problem with the institution.” Canadian forces have not faced any war crime allegations since then, demonstrating that accountability is a must for perpetrators of human rights abuses.