The government is setting up a special investigator office to examine the findings of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force’s inquiry into alleged misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.
The office will assist and coordinate Australia Federal Police criminal investigations into matters raised by the inquiry, gather evidence and where appropriate refer briefs to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Ahead of next week’s release of the redacted report, prepared by Justice Paul Brereton, Scott Morrison warned it would be “difficult and hard news” for Australians to hear.
He said the Australian Defence Force had served in Afghanistan “with great sacrifice, while dealing with significant challenges”, and more generally, he was extremely thankful “to every Australian who chooses to put on our uniform”.
But “we need to ensure justice is truly served by illuminating the conduct of those who may have acted in ways that do not accord with the high standards expected of our ADF and those expectations held by the serving men and women of our ADF and their veterans community, past and present.”
Morrison said the conduct covered the time-span of three governments. “Our responsibility is to ensure now that we deal with this in a way that accords with our Australian standards of justice, that respects the rule of law, that provides the relevant checks and balances through this process, that upholds our values and standards and the respect that we have for our Defence Forces that they have earned and deserve”.
He stressed the need to “protect the vulnerable whether serving currently or who are in our veterans community who have no part in this ”.
While those accused of misconduct must be held accountable within the justice system and the Australian rule of law “responsibility must also be taken by leadership to ensure the lessons are learned and these events are never repeated”.
The inquiry has examined a raft of alleged breaches of the laws of armed conflict, including claims of murder and mistreatment, involving non-combatants and those being held prisoner.
The report covers not just specific allegations, but also the culture that allowed misbehaviour.
The government is also establishing a panel to oversee Defence’s broader response to the inquiry, covering cultural, organisational and leadership change. It will report to the defence minister.
Its members will be Vivienne Thom, a former inspector-general of intelligence and security, Robert Cornall, a former secretary of the attorney-general’s department, and Rufus Black, an ethicist and vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania.
The special investigator will be a senior counsel or retired judge. The office will sit in the Home Affairs portfolio. It will have investigative staff from within the Australian Federal Police, state police experts and legal counsel.
The investigations would normally be handled by the AFP but the volume and complexity of the task is too great.
Morrison said it would operate as long as necessary.
Ben Roberts-Smith, a VC recipient in Afghanistan, who has been subject to allegations in the media, issued a statement on Thursday night.