Australia shows the United Kingdom there is another way of being accountable for war crimes

20th November 2020

The United Kingdom government is currently making it (even) more difficult to prosecute its armed services for historic war crimes.

On this I did a video essay for the Financial Times (written and presented by me, produced by the estimable Tom Hannen).

The United Kingdom and war crimes (and torture in particular) is a depressing subject – from Kenya and Northern Ireland to Iraq and Afghanistan, there are cover-ups and other attempts to avoid scrutiny.

But there are other, more refreshing approaches to official accountability.

The Australian government has now published a report into war crimes in Afghanistan by its own special forces.

The report of by Paul Brereton, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report is an extraordinary and highly important document.

The report is unflinching.

And in response to the report, the Australian government has already taken concrete steps.


War crimes happen, torture happens – and war crimes and torture can be committed by all sides, not just the ‘baddies’.

This is the nasty truth about conflict and human nature.

The question is about what to do about it when it happens.

One approach comprises official cover-ups, deflections, and smearing those seeking justice and accountability.

This is a misguided, short-term approach.

It means there is a sense of getting away with it, of permissiveness – and, in time, it means the armed services will lose valuable legitimacy when dealing with local populations.

The Australian approach is far harder, but a far better one.

The United Kingdom – as it did with torture in Kenya and Northern Ireland – would much prefer to pretend that these things never happen here.

Or, if there is acceptance that war crimes and torture took place, then there is then a shruggy ‘well, what is wrong with this?’  and ‘so what?’ and this dismissive attitude will get easy nods from political and media supporters.

Yet everything is wrong with war crimes and torture, and high standards matter and make a difference.

And the Australians seem to realise this, but the United Kingdom does not.


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6 thoughts on “Australia shows the United Kingdom there is another way of being accountable for war crimes”

  1. This is a hornet’s nest and goes back to Nürnberg and Tokyo.
    Plus the refusal by the USA et al. to accept the International Criminal Court’s authority.

  2. The Brereton report is an important achievement, and Australians are shocked by its contents but mostly determined that there will be concrete outcomes.
    The report comes after a long period of investigations by journalists in Australia, notably from the ABC, our public broadcaster. Those investigations were hampered by police investigations which meant that the journalists involved were unsure for many months whether or not they would be charged with criminal offences.
    In addition, at least one whistle-blower has been charged, and the prosecution has not been ended, even after the publication of the report vindicating his statements.
    In Australia, there is an unfortunate record of important reports being ignored, notably the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the recommendations of which remain unimplemented.
    Australians, therefore, will hold back our applause until there are successful war crimes prosecutions, culture change in the special forces and compensation for the victims

    1. Thank you Holly. The state of media in Australia, overreach by the police and weak responses to official inquiries (I include the bushfire inquiry in that list) are all topics of concern. I appreciate that you spoke up about this.

      I was positively surprised that the Brereton Report had such a wide and public release. I hope that the pressure to act is sustained and effective.

  3. It is a slippery slope when those with responsibility for maintaining standards choose to obfuscate, deflect and even perjure to support their own side.
    2020 will be a pivotal year for many reasons and one would hope that this Australian example gains traction.

  4. Thank you for this article. About British war crimes may I add a hint to the “London Cage” and the Interrogation Centre in Bad Nenndorf/Germany after WWII, which have seen some judicial investigation. The results were not always satisfying. In the German public, the victims have (had) quite a difficult standing, as the British forces were generally seen as the “gentleman liberators”.

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