Foreign forces have a duty of care in war-torn countries

Editorial Director of the ABC Craig McMurtie speaks to members of the media outside the ABC building. EPA
Editorial Director of the ABC Craig McMurtie speaks to members of the media outside the ABC building. EPA

On Wednesday, Australian police raided the Sydney headquarters of ABC, the nation’s national broadcaster, in connection with a 2017 report based on leaked military documents. The story, commonly known as The Afghan Files, revealed allegations of unlawful killings and misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. This is a worrying development for the Australian press, which should not be punished for fulfilling its duties. But the incident also raises the question of accountability for troops who commit crimes in war zones abroad.

The Afghan Files revealed that between 2009 and 2013, Australian troops killed unarmed Afghan men and children. A pernicious “warrior culture”, described in a 2014 document as deeply ingrained within special forces, had reportedly encouraged high-ranking officials to turn a blind eye to these crimes. This problem is not unique to Australian troops. One of the most extreme cases remains the torture and sexual abuse committed by US troops in the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib in 2003. At the time, the atmosphere of impunity was such that soldiers were happy to document their crimes, even taking pictures of – and with – their victims. Similar abuse still goes unpunished. In May, US President Donald Trump signed a full pardon for Michael Behenna, a US soldier who was convicted of killing an Iraqi prisoner instead of following orders to escort him home.

Whether these crimes happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, it is clear that western authorities have failed to keep their troops in line and in many cases to hold them responsible for their actions. Operating in such a manner perpetuates the very violence they were meant to shield local populations from. War-torn countries are invariably in dire need of help from allied nations, but it seems some rogue elements within the military have taken advantage of their position to inflict even more suffering on the world’s most vulnerable people. This is a shameful dereliction of duty and an egregious betrayal of trust. Such cases serve as poignant reminders that the lives of people living in conflict zones matter, and must be protected at all costs.

Updated: June 6, 2019 05:18 PM

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