Human Rights Watch Australia Director Daniela Gavshon said in a dispatch Thursday that Canberra needs to “promptly compensate victims” of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan.
Gavshon said: “Criminal trials have not yet started and will likely take years. But the families of victims – who have now waited more than a decade – deserve better. Prompt and adequate payments to the victims or their families as recommended by the Brereton Report is not only legally required, but is the right thing to do.”
Responding to news that one of Australia’s most decorated living soldiers on Thursday lost a defamation lawsuit against three newspapers that accused him of involvement in the murder of six Afghans during deployment to Afghanistan, Gavshon said the verdict puts Australian war crimes investigations back into the spotlight.
“The media defended their reporting, asserting that it was true. While not a criminal trial, it is the first time a civilian court in Australia has assessed allegations of war crimes committed by an Australian soldier,” she wrote.
Federal Court judge Anthony Besanko said in Sydney on Thursday that the newspapers successfully established that their reports that former SAS corporal Ben Roberts-Smith was involved in execution and murder in Afghanistan were true and that the media outlets had “established substantial or contextual truth of allegations of murders of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan” by Roberts-Smith.
Gavshon said: “The case is a victory for public interest journalism and the role it plays in bringing important issues to light.
“The verdict puts Australian war crimes investigations back into the spotlight. The media defended their reporting, asserting that it was true. While not a criminal trial, it is the first time a civilian court in Australia has assessed allegations of war crimes committed by an Australian soldier,” she wrote.
During the trial, former Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers testified to witnessing summary executions of civilians, and being bullied into proving themselves by carrying out killings themselves.
Among the news reports that the court found to be substantially true were Roberts-Smith kicking an unarmed Afghan civilian off a cliff and procuring other soldiers to shoot him, pressuring a newly deployed soldier to execute an older Afghan man, and machine-gunning a civilian with a prosthetic leg.
The Australian Office of the Special Investigator is currently investigating more than 40 incidents relating to alleged war crimes committed by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2016. In March 2023, police made their first arrest of a soldier accused of murdering an Afghan civilian in 2012.
Under international humanitarian law, the Australian government is obligated to investigate alleged war crimes by its forces and prosecute those responsible.
The 2020 report of the Independent Afghanistan Inquiry (known as the Brereton Report) recommended the Australian government pay compensation to survivors and families of victims unlawfully killed without waiting for the establishment of individual criminal liability. The Department of Defence has said it is looking into the recommendations and how to address the issue of compensation, but they have not publicly indicated what, if any, progress has been made.
Gavshon said while criminal trials have not yet started and will likely take years, families of victims have waited for more than 10 years and that prompt and adequate payments to the victims or their families is not only legally required, but it is the right thing to do.