‘Serious action’ needed on Australian military culture but commanders may not be held accountable for years

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<span>Photograph: Corporal Raymond Vance/PR IMAGE</span>
Photograph: Corporal Raymond Vance/PR IMAGE

The Australian defence force may delay holding individual military commanders accountable for the cultural failings exposed in the Brereton war crimes inquiry until after prosecutions of alleged perpetrators have concluded.

The prospect of deferring such action was revealed in a 26-page Afghanistan Inquiry Reform Plan that was quietly posted on the defence department’s website last Friday without a public announcement or press conference.

Labor accused the Morrison government of “failing to show leadership” and of dodging scrutiny with the way it had handled the “significant announcement in response to these most serious wrongdoings”.

Related: Australian special forces soldiers incensed at war crimes inquiry clearing commanders of blame

The Brereton inquiry found “credible” evidence to implicate 25 current or former ADF personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 individuals and the cruel treatment of two others.

The newly released reform plan confirms the chief of the ADF, Gen Angus Campbell, will consider whether there were failures in command accountability and, if so, what action is appropriate.

But the document raises the prospect that such action could be delayed to avoid affecting the ongoing work of the Office of the Special Investigator (OSI) or the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) – the bodies that will prepare and consider briefs evidence for potential prosecution.

“In order to avoid risk to OSI and/or CDPP action, action in relation to command accountability will be initiated after the risk has been removed or satisfactorily mitigated,” it said.

A “frequently asked questions” section posted on the department of defence’s website uses even stronger language about command accountability, saying it is important not to “compromise” the work of those two agencies, and the stance “may require deferral of actions in some circumstances”.

In the meantime, the document states, “initiatives to reform end-to-end training for all Defence personnel – including on ethics, leadership, command, culture and character – will strengthen command accountability”.

Training will be modernised “to address increasingly complex and ambiguous operational environments” and the ADF will also ensure “there are clear command structures”.

The Greens senator Jordon Steele-John said the events outlined in the Brereton report were “horrific” and “those higher up the chain of command must face accountability”.

“Without this, Defence will not satisfy the expectations of those who served and are currently serving, and will certainly not satisfy the expectations of the public,” he said.

Steele-John, who is the party’s spokesperson on peace and disarmament, said it was “not acceptable to defer disciplinary and other measures down the track” and “not good enough to allow accused commanders, and others, to continue to serve and be promoted through the defence force”.

“Allowing these individuals to remain in leadership positions undermines reform and trust both within and outside our ADF,” Steele-John said. “If the ADF are serious about fixing the rotten culture, then serious actions need to be taken.”

Comment has been sought from the Defence media unit on the timeframes for command accountability, but Campbell has previously said commanders would be dealt with “on a case-by-case basis”.

The newly released reform plan says Defence has “accepted” all 191 findings of the Brereton report, but uses different language about the 143 recommendations, saying it “is addressing” all of those.

That seems to reflect the decision of the defence minister, Peter Dutton, in April to overrule Campbell on plans to strip the meritorious unit citation from about 3,000 special forces soldiers who served in Afghanistan.

But that does not preclude the prospect of stripping individual honours and awards, with Defence due to review those matters by the end of this year.

The document also shows the government expects to finalise the approach it will take to the families of victims by the end of 2021.

Related: ‘It’s awful’: expert whose work triggered Australian war crimes inquiry says abuse taking personal toll

On Thursday, human rights groups in Afghanistan and Australia wrote to the Morrison government to urge it to promptly pay compensation in those cases identified in the Brereton report.

“Families have lost their breadwinners and they must be compensated without any delay,” said Hadi Marifat, the executive director of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, and one of the authors of the letter.

“I have spoken with survivors several times. They are seeking a comprehensive reparation program, and they want to be consulted on its appropriate forms.”

In the letter to Scott Morrison and senior ministers, the groups said the government should also plan how to process and assess cases beyond those identified in the Brereton inquiry, as further alleged war crimes may come to light.

They argued compensation should not be limited to unlawful killings, but extended to all relevant violations of international humanitarian law including cruel treatment.

Fiona Nelson, the senior legal adviser at the Australian Centre for International Justice, said Australia “must make good on its obligations to the Afghan people” following the ADF’s withdrawal.

“This includes ensuring that survivors of war crimes are treated with dignity and provided with effective and prompt reparation,” Nelson said.

Manizha Isaar, of the Transitional Justice Coordination Group, said the Afghan people had “gone through enormous difficulties” and reparations were “important to victims as one way of achieving some measure of justice”.

Dr Samantha Crompvoets, the military sociologist whose work helped trigger the inquiry, said cultural reform wasn’t part of some “woke agenda”, but was about ensuring the ADF is as strong and resilient as possible.

Crompvoets said a flawed culture would diminish Australia’s defence capability. “We owe it to men and women who serve, and our veteran community, to ensure these reforms are not compromised,” she said.

Crompvoets said the government must now ensure an “unrelenting spotlight” on reform, including examining flawed power structures within the ADF.

“We can’t afford for the conditions and culture subsequent misconduct that was exposed to fester again.”

Labor’s defence spokesperson, Brendan O’Connor, welcomed the release of the reform plan but said the government had “gone into hiding during this significant announcement in response to these most serious wrongdoings, evading scrutiny and accountability, and failing to show leadership”.

Campbell said in November last year transparency would be “key” to the reform process.

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