Afghan and Australian rights groups have warned the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan must not be allowed to disrupt or delay Australia’s plan to compensate victims of alleged war crimes.
A key recommendation of the Brereton report, released exactly one year ago, was that the Australian government provide redress to the families of victims, without waiting for prosecutions to conclude.
The report found “credible information” implicating 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 people and the cruel treatment of two others in Afghanistan and recommended a number of cases be referred for investigation.
Defence has previously signalled it will release a compensation plan by the end of this year.
The plan is yet to be produced.
An alliance of human rights groups said on Friday that the “essential” task of involving Afghans should not be put off due to the dramatic deterioration in the country’s humanitarian situation and its fall to the Taliban.
A joint statement issued by 13 human rights groups, including the Afghanistan-based Transitional Justice Coordination Group and Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, said it was crucial that survivors of alleged abuses were consulted to determine the proper forms of redress, which should include guarantees of non-repetition.
“The Brereton report recommended that the families of survivors be compensated without delay,” the statement said.
“One year on, the Government has yet to produce a plan.”
“The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically in the twelve months since the Brereton Report was published. This will likely complicate the task of involving people from Afghanistan in the process of reckoning with this dark chapter in Australia’s history.
“Yet it remains an essential part of the path forward.” The Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization executive director, Hadi Marifat, said the change of circumstances in Afghanistan “must not affect the resolve of the Australian government”.
“Victims’ families and survivors impatiently wait for the long-promised justice, accountability and reparations,” Marifat said.
Other signatories to the joint statement include Amnesty International, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Australian Centre for International Justice, and Human Rights Watch.
The Taliban’s resurgence this year makes access for war crimes investigators particularly problematic.
But the Human Rights Watch Australia director, Elaine Pearson, said the fall of Afghanistan made it “even more crucial” that justice and accountability was afforded to survivors of alleged abuses and their families.
“The special investigator’s office should ensure that proper protection measures are in place to minimise any risks for potential witnesses to crimes,” Pearson said.
The Australian Council for International Development chief executive, Marc Purcell, said access for investigators should be a focus of any future talks with the Taliban.
“Such dialogue around access does not require the government to recognise the Taliban,” he said.
“However, a failure to secure access and investigate alleged war crimes by the Australian SAS would be justice denied to the Afghan victims and their families.”
The Office of the Special Investigator (OSI), established last year, is continuing to collect evidences of potential war crimes committed by special forces troops.
Chris Moraitis, the OSI director general, told a parliamentary committee last month none of the 19 special forces soldiers potentially implicated by the report had been exonerated, and that its investigations were continuing.
“We have not exonerated anybody, we are starting our investigations to examine the evidence,” he told the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee.
It is understood some former soldiers have had discussions with officials over potential immunity from prosecution if they agree to give evidence against comrades.
Moraitis said it could still take between one and five years before the investigation – involving more than 50 investigators – was ready to present evidence to the DPP to determine whether charges would be laid and former soldiers brought before a court.
He said the Taliban’s swift and complete takeover of Afghanistan was likely to impede the investigation as it progressed and obtaining evidence from inside the country was currently nearly impossible.
“The situation is not ideal from an investigations perspective and its pretty self-evident access to individuals in Afghanistan … is extremely difficult if not currently impossible.”
The Australian federal police is also conducting investigations into potential war crimes by Australian troops that fall outside the OSI’s remit, but has said gathering evidence and approaching witnesses inside Afghanistan poses too great a risk.
“The AFP is not engaging with Taliban controlled Afghanistan,” it said, in a submission to a Senate inquiry into Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan.
“The security situation in Afghanistan may affect the ongoing investigation of war crimes allegedly perpetrated by ADF personnel, in that obtaining evidence and accessing potential witnesses residing there is likely to be more difficult.
Any future engagement in Afghanistan would require an assessment of the security situation and other relevant considerations at the time, with the safety of investigators and Afghan nationals remaining the paramount concern.”—Agencies