Australian government misses compensation deadline for victims of alleged war crimes

The Australian government has missed a deadline to decide on compensation for victims of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, potentially leaving the thorny issue to be sorted out after the election.

Defence blamed the delay on “legal, practical and logistical issues”, while Labor accused the Coalition of breaking a promise to keep parliament informed of progress on reforms sparked by the “damning” Brereton inquiry.

The inquiry found “credible” information to implicate 25 current or former Australian defence force personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 individuals and the cruel treatment of two others, with criminal allegations to be considered by the new Office of the Special Investigator.

The inquiry report by Maj Gen Paul Brereton said Australia should not wait for a court to establish criminal liability in order to compensate affected families. If there was credible information of an unlawful killing, Brereton wrote, compensation should be paid swiftly because that would help restore “Australia’s standing” and was “simply the morally right thing to do”.

Releasing the report in November 2020, the chief of the ADF, Gen Angus Campbell, said: “I very much support Justice Brereton’s recommendation.”

A reform plan approved by the defence minister, Peter Dutton, and released last July set a deadline of “end-2021” for the government to decide on an approach to compensation. The plan originally said further information on compensation “will be available by end-2021”.

But the Department of Defence confirmed this week the work was not finished. A spokesperson said the department was still consulting with a range of government agencies regarding the compensation recommendations.

“Further information will be available following advice/consultation and consideration by government,” the spokesperson said.

“The issue of compensation is complex and comes with a number of legal, practical and logistical issues.”

It is understood there is no new indicative deadline, meaning it is possible this could be left for a government decision after the election.

Caretaker conventions discourage major policy decisions during the campaign unless the opposition is consulted.

Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last August after the withdrawal of US and allied forces – a development that may also pose challenges to criminal investigations.

The delay will disappoint Afghan and Australian human rights groups, which have previously acknowledged the situation in Afghanistan had “deteriorated dramatically” but argued this must not be allowed to disrupt Australia’s plan to compensate families of victims of alleged war crimes.

“This will likely complicate the task of involving people from Afghanistan in the process of reckoning with this dark chapter in Australia’s history,” 13 rights group said in a joint statement in November.

“Yet it remains an essential part of the path forward.”

The Australian government created an Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel to ensure lasting cultural reforms within the ADF.

The then defence minister, Linda Reynolds, said she would get an official report every three months from the panel, led by former Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Vivienne Thom.

Reynolds made a commitment to updating the public via the parliament. “I will be reporting regularly to the parliament on their reports to me,” she said in November 2020.

However, a search of Hansard since early 2021 shows the panel has been mentioned twice in passing in Senate estimates hearings. That included when Marise Payne, then the acting defence minister, advised a hearing in March 2021 that she had met with the panel chaired by Thom.

The parliamentary record indicates Dutton addressed the lower house several times about the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent evacuation operations, but not about progress on the reform plans.

Dutton’s office has not responded to previous questions from Guardian Australia about whether he intended to report regularly to parliament on the oversight and implementation process.

Labor’s defence spokesperson, Brendan O’Connor, said the lack of updates to parliament represented “another broken promise by the government”.

In an interview this week, O’Connor said it appeared the government had “sat on its hands in relation to this inquiry”.

“It’s a damning report. We support the creation of the Office of the Special Investigator,” he said.

“We expect the Special Investigator to do their job – we know that it’s a complicated and complex area and we know it’ll take a considerable amount of time, but we should allow that to happen.”

O’Connor noted that when the report was released, the prime minister and the defence minister left it to the chief of the ADF to respond, including answering questions from the media. He characterised this as “a lack of political leadership”.

Shortly after assuming the defence portfolio, Dutton overruled Campbell on plans to strip the meritorious unit citation from about 3,000 special forces soldiers and said his top priority was to reassure servicemen and women that “the government has their back”.

Labor voiced support for that decision by Dutton, but maintained that the Coalition had failed to show leadership and transparency.

Defence said it had so far taken action to close 101 of the 143 inquiry recommendations.

Campbell and the secretary of the Department of Defence, Greg Moriarty, said last year they were “committed both to addressing the failures and wrongdoing of the past and undertaking deep and enduring reform across the organisation”.

But action to hold individual military commanders accountable for cultural failings is being delayed to avoid affecting the ongoing work of the Office of the Special Investigator.

At the same time, aid groups have sounded the alarm about the “desperately heartbreaking” situation in Afghanistan, including poverty and famine.

At least six people were killed and 11 wounded in two bomb blasts at a boys’ school in a Hazara Shia neighbourhood of Kabul on Tuesday.

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