Australia: war crimes and justice


Gwynne Dyer — “Guys just had this blood-lust. Psychos. Absolute psychos. And we bred them.”

So said an Australian soldier about the war crimes committed by the Australian SAS (Special Air Service) when the scandal first broke in 2016. And the Australian Defence Force, bless its heart, actually took the accusations seriously.

An inquiry led by Justice Paul Brereton delivered a damning report in 2020. It found credible evidence for the murder of 39 Afghans — prisoners of war, farmers and other civilians — by 25 named Australian SAS soldiers in 2007-2013.

The Australian Defence Force accepted all 143 of Brereton’s recommendations. It apologised to the people of Afghanistan, condemned the “shameful”, “toxic” culture that prevailed within the SAS, and made helmet or body cameras compulsory for special forces on future deployments.

The Defence Force also referred the report to the Australian federal police for criminal investigation, including the names of the 25 soldiers who were accused of murder (names were redacted in the Brereton report).

In August 2021, less than a year after the report was published, the puppet Afghan government and its army collapsed, all foreign forces pulled out and the Taliban took power: the process of gathering evidence for criminal prosecutions of the SAS killers suddenly ground to a halt. An Office of the Special Investigator had been created and more than 50 investigators and intelligence analysts assigned to the task, but none of them could go to Afghanistan to interview the witnesses to the atrocities.

So far there has been only one indictment of an SAS soldier (this March), and there is actually film of him shooting his victim. Most of the accused were a little smarter than that, and there was reason to fear the whole process would run into the sand.

Then former SAS corporal Ben Roberts-Smith rolled up and inadvertently saved the day.

Ben Roberts-Smith

Roberts-Smith is Australia’s most decorated living soldier. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for “most conspicuous gallantry” in the battle of Tizak in Afghanistan in 2010.

He is also a man who kicked a handcuffed prisoner off a cliff in Darwan in 2012, and then ordered a subordinate soldier to finish the man off. Three years before that he murdered a disabled man with a prosthetic leg, then brought the leg back to the SAS base so his soldiers could chug beer from it. And lots more in the same vein.

His name was on the list of 25, and many people had heard about his “exploits”. A series of articles in three leading newspapers even detailed them at length in 2018. But the evidence was not strong enough for a criminal conviction, so Roberts-Smith would probably never have seen the inside of a courtroom so long as his former colleagues kept silent.

And then the fool sued the three papers for defamation of character. That’s a civil case, not a criminal one, and the standard of evidence required is lower.

Last Friday Justice Anthony Besanko, after a year-long trial, found that the major allegations made by the papers — that Roberts-Smith is a murderer, a criminal and a bully — were proven to the civil standard of the balance of probabilities.

He won’t go to jail, but he has lost his job, any money he has will be swallowed up by the costs of the trial (about $A30 million), and he may have to leave Australia to avoid further legal action — because this courtroom drama will reinvigorate the prosecution of the other alleged war criminals.

Every country that sends its troops abroad to fight faces the same problem, especially among elite units, where a “warrior culture” is often encouraged. The attempt to impose humanitarian rules on war is always bound to fall short, but the effort must be made nevertheless.

Australia is doing a lot better than most other countries.

[NOTE: Especially the U.S.]

2 thoughts on “Australia: war crimes and justice”

  1. I will never understand why people are shocked by atrocities committed by those whom we have trained to go to war and do that very thing.

  2. Roberts-Smith’s supervisors knew, or should have known, and should have addressed all aspects of the problem.

    Roberts-Smith’s unit mates may be either co-conspirators or additional victims. If they felt powerless to stop the assaults, or if they were threatened into silence against their conscience, they suffered moral injury.

    In providing health care to U.S. military veterans, I was struck that many who caused great harm are now among the most committed to gentleness and peace. I’m a lot slower to judge than I was before that experience.

    Thanks, Chuck, for sharing this important article!

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