The acting prime minister, Riccardo Marles, has said he is “deeply committed” to reforming the Australian Defence Force after the Afghanistan war crimes inquiry, declaring that “history will judge us”.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, the defence minister said the nation must “make right this appalling set of circumstances” and he promised to keep parliament informed of progress – a step avoided by his predecessor, Peter Dutton.
Marles said the new government was not going to “rake over old coals in terms of decisions that have been made by the former government”.
This indicates he is unlikely to revoke the meritorious unit citation from more than 3,000 current and former ADF members who served in Afghanistan between 2007 e 2013, given that Dutton decided against doing so in April last year. Dutton overruled advice from defence leadership.
But Marles said it was “hugely important” to implement lasting reforms following the “deeply troubling” findings of the inquiry headed by Maj Gen Paul Brereton.
Il inquiry found “credible” information to implicate 25 current or former ADF personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 individuals and the cruel treatment of two others.
“History will judge us on the way in which we manage this and it should – and the world will judge us in respect of this,” Marles said during an interview at Parliament House on Friday.
“I think Australians should judge ourselves on the degree to which we thoroughly and properly handle this ourselves. And the only way we can begin to make right this appalling set of circumstances is if we as a nation do it ourselves, and that’s what Brereton is about.”
The criminal allegations are being considered by the new Office of the Special Investigator (OSI), but the Brereton report also recommended a raft of ADF reforms to address “strategic, operational, structural, training and cultural factors”.
The report argued the use of official helmet cameras by special forces operators “would be a powerful assurance of the lawful and appropriate use of force on operations, as well as providing other benefits in terms of information collection”. It also called for special forces to be subject to effective oversight by national command.
Defence pledged last year to act on the recommendations and modernise training “to address increasingly complex and ambiguous operational environments”.
Marles offered his personal commitment to ensure “follow-through” on the reforms. He said lasting change was important “not just in terms of our standing in the world” but also because “it goes to the heart of who we are as a people”.
“It is Australia acting here – we’ve not been hauled into some other international tribunal by another country, it’s actually us who is looking at where there [era] terrible conduct and manifest failings,” Marles said.
“But to be true to that we’ve got to follow through. It’s really important that there is the follow-through and that it is fully implemented and I’m deeply committed to that.”
Marles said parliament should be “kept informed and kept aware of what is occurring here”.
“That’s the principal means by which, in a sense, we speak to the nation and we speak to history and so I think that’s very important," Egli ha detto.
The former defence minister Linda Reynolds established an oversight panel in late 2020 and promised to report “regularly to the parliament on their reports to me”.
But Dutton, who took over as minister in late March 2021, never spoke about the Brereton reforms in parliament, even though the oversight panel has handed over six private reports. The chief of the ADF, Gen Angus Campbell, has previously said transparency would be key to the broader reform process.
quando asked during the election campaign why he had not kept the public informed via parliament, Dutton said the issue was “not a plaything” and it would be wrong to comment “on whether a particular investigation is up to a certain stage” or “whether somebody is about to be arrested”. He also called Guardian Australia a “trashy” publication following questioning on the matter.
But criminal investigations are handled separately by the OSI together with the Australian federal police.
The oversight panel, headed by the former intelligence watchdog Dr Vivienne Thom, reports directly to the defence minister.
The panel focuses on the “thoroughness and effectiveness” of the ADF chief’s implementation plans and is required to alert the defence minister to “any challenges and difficulties”.
When asked to confirm he would proactively update parliament on progress of the Brereton reforms, Marles replied: “Indeed.”
Marles has extended the terms of Campbell and the vice-chief of the ADF by two years, mainly to help bed down the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine plans with the US and the UK.
But Marles also said Australia was “incredibly lucky” to have had Campbell as ADF chief as he had dealt with the Brereton inquiry “with great sensitivity”.
“He understands the gravity of this and not just in terms of the activities that have been described in it and their seriousness, but the gravity of making sure that as a nation we handle this and we deal with it.”
Labor has given no indication about how it will deal with the thorny issue of compensation for families of victims of alleged war crimes – but a decision by the new government is not believed to be imminent.
Brereton had said that if there was credible information of an unlawful killing, compensation should be paid swiftly to help restore “Australia’s standing” and because it was “simply the morally right thing to do”. Campbell originally voiced support for this recommendation.
A defence reform plan had set a deadline of “end-2021” for the then government to decide on an approach to compensation – but this goal was missed amid “legal, practical and logistical issues”.