Sputnik discussed this issue with Professor Ben Saul, Challis chair of international law at the University of Sydney.
Ben Saul: I think many Australians are alarmed that many allegations of war crimes by Australia’s most highly trained Special Forces including at least three cases of alleged unlawful killing or murder or execution of harmless unarmed detainees by Australian forces in 2009 and 2012.
Ben Saul: It is and exactly in Australia there’ve been now three separate inquiries into these allegations, not only the alleged war crimes, but also a whole range of other cultural problems about discipline and behavior not amounting to war crimes but which is nonetheless problematic from the point of view of good military discipline and obeying orders.
There’s been widespread media coverage of this in Australia.
I do think there’s a real commitment by the political authorities as well as the legal authorities — the police and the military itself. So we’re getting to the bottom of this and holding people to account who have breached rules of discipline or war crime laws.
Sputnik: Have there been any precedents for Australian soldiers to have been tried and not only condemned for their actions but also sentenced to some kind of punishment or has that happened as of now or have there been any cases that you know about?
There’ve been very few cases where war crimes had been alleged or people had been tried or prosecuted for them. I mean there was a case a very long time ago when in 1901 in the Boer War in South Africa an Australian soldier was convicted and executed for killing 13 unarmed Boer prisoners, which were clearly war crimes at the time. But most recently we’re still waiting to get to the bottom of what happened here.
There are going to be referrals, we think, to the Australian Federal Police, so these cases will be taken outside of the military command, given to the civilian police authorities to be tried as they should be, in a more important way of war crimes under the federal criminal law, instead of just dealing with it at the lower level of infraction — violations of the military discipline code — which is not treated as seriously as international war crimes.
Sputnik: You mentioned that there were incidents in 2009 and 2012, why is this coming out just now?
And so there does seem to have been something of a cover-up within the ranks where problems or violations or war crimes haven’t been reported to the chain of command as they should have been. I mean every soldier in their basic training is told that they must follow orders, they must respect the rules which they’re given to fight with and it seems that for a very long time this information just hasn’t come out.
There’ve been rumors circulating but it doesn’t seem to have triggered formal disciplinary processes or formal investigative processes which would lead to a kind of accountability and justice which you expect. I mean these alleged executions of at least three unarmed prisoners, which is amongst the worst kinds of war crimes that soldiers can be alleged to commit.
Sputnik: And there is also in one of these incidents in any case it was alleged that there was pressure put on a lower-ranking soldier by higher-ranking soldiers. Is it typical that you hear about bullying or this kind of pressure being asserted against lower-ranking soldiers?
But it does seem that in that case, if the allegations are true, then certainly senior soldiers were imposing pressure on subordinates to commit war crimes and carry out executions almost as a way of kind of proving themselves as a kind of hazing ritual, which on the one hand tries to promote some kind of comradery within the ranks but is utterly misconceived.
Of course it’s a very serious violation of international law, it’s a violation of Australian law, it’s a violation of military orders given by senior commanders to their juniors. So this is obviously something which the Australian military and the highest levels of the Australian military came to get to the bottom of and to stop this kind of behavior from recurring.
It does seem to be a very small number of the special forces involved in these violations. It doesn’t seem to be something systematic across the whole of the special forces and indeed some of the key witnesses testifying against the alleged murderers here are special forces soldiers.
The views and opinions expressed by Ben Saul are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the position of Sputnik.