Military leaders should be accountable for war crimes

The nation's senior military leaders should be held accountable for failures linked to war crimes committed in Afghanistan by Australian troops, a panel warns.

In its final report to Defence Minister Richard Marles, the Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel says it does not agree with the Brereton inquiry’s finding that most senior military officers should not be held accountable for the murders of up to 39 Afghans by special forces soldiers.

The 2020 Brereton report found "credible" evidence elite Australian soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan, with the majority occurring in 2012 and 2013.

But it failed to sanction senior commanders, leading to frustration among former and current serving defence force personnel.

The independent panel overseeing the Defence response to the inquiry, said there was an "unmet need for Defence senior leadership to communicate to the serving and ex-serving ranks of the ADF that they collectively accept organisational responsibility and accountability for part of what when wrong in Afghanistan".

One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts obtained the report from the government after requesting it through the Senate.

"The oversight panel ... recommended Defence senior leadership acknowledge command responsibility for allegations, directly contradicting the Brereton report," he said.

A spokesperson for Mr Marles said: "Work remains ongoing to address the issues identified in the Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel final report and the government will have more to say about this in coming months."

The Brereton report found that junior soldiers were required to shoot prisoners to achieve the soldier's first kill in a practice known as "blooding".

Weapons or radios would be planted with bodies as part of "throwdowns" and a cover story would be created to avoid scrutiny.

"There is ongoing anger and bitter resentment amongst present and former members of the special forces, many of whom served with distinction in Afghanistan, that their senior officers have not publicly accepted some responsibility for policies or decisions that contributed to the misconduct such as the overuse of special forces," the panel says.

The report says the resentment will "likely last for a long time".

Commanders needed to accept accountability to "prevent or mitigate any recurrence” of unlawful conduct, the panel says, suggesting the issue be further considered. 

The report compares the failure by Defence's senior leaders to accept accountability to the private sector, where major corporate failures result in both organisational and individual responsibility.

It found substantial progress had been made in addressing cultural issues in Australia's special forces.

"While there are still occasions when individuals exhibit behaviours indicative of unhealthy exceptionalism, today the responses from the leadership appear to be rapid, clear and appropriate,” the panel says.

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