Australian authorities’ announcement this week of a war crimes indictment against a special forces soldier who served in Afghanistan marks a “significant step” in accountability and could be followed by other similar actions .
“It shows that they take their role seriously – both in terms of conducting rigorous investigations and the need to lay charges when the evidence justifies it”, points out to La Presse Daniela Gavshon, analyst of Human Rights Watch based in Australia.
Kyinzom Dhongdue of Amnesty International speaks of a “promising step” that sends a “strong message” to the families of the victims that their complaints will not be swept under the rug.
“It remains to be seen, however, whether this is an isolated case or the start of a paradigm shift in how Australian authorities hold their own soldiers to account for serious violations of humanitarian law. internationally,” she said in a statement.
Many of them stem from a shock report leaked in 2020 which noted the existence of “credible evidence” suggesting that 25 special forces soldiers unlawfully killed 39 Afghans or acted as accomplices during the Australian deployment period, from 2005 to 2016.
In all cases, the victims were civilians or persons “hors de combat” who are protected by international humanitarian law.
The author of the report, Major General Paul Brereton, said he was appalled by the results of his research. “We did not wish to come to such conclusions. They diminish us all,” he said.
The soldier charged this week, Oliver Schulz, 41, faces life in prison. He is accused of killing a defenseless Afghan man following an operation in the Afghan province of Orozgan in May 2012.
The Australian channel ABC had leaked in 2020, before the release of the Brereton report, images of the attack taken by the camera of another soldier.
A member of the special forces who was not identified by name in the report shoots a man lying at his feet at close range after asking his colleague if he should shoot him.
An investigation conducted by the army at the time in response to complaints from the local population concluded that it was a legitimate act of self-defense. According to ABC, the shooter said he opened fire while the victim was more than ten meters from him and was holding a radio in his hand, a version contradicted by the images.
General Brereton also accused in his report members of the special forces of having concealed the nature of their actions by placing weapons, radios or grenades near the corpses of the victims.
Patricia Gossman, who heads the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, hopes the indictment of an Australian soldier in connection with crimes in Afghanistan will spur “other governments to act” to shed light on the allegations of abuse targeting their own troops.
An investigation into British special forces ended in particular in 2020, after six years, without any indictment.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has also been looking into possible war crimes in Afghanistan since 2003, the year the country recognized the court’s jurisdiction.
Prosecutor-in-Charge Karim Khan said, citing the organization’s limited resources, that he intended to “prioritize” the actions of the Islamic State armed group and the Taliban, which returned to power in the summer of 2021. after being expelled in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Gossman said the actions of “all participants in the conflict,” including American troops and Afghan troops who fought the Taliban before they returned to Kabul, should be considered.
“The investigative process was marred by many delays,” said Ms. Gossman, referring, by way of comparison, to the speed with which the ICC proceeded to indict Russian President Vladimir Putin in relation to his alleged role in war crimes in Ukraine.
“There is a lot of frustration among Afghans to see how much faster things have happened on this file,” said the Human Rights Watch representative.
Besides the United States and Britain, many Western countries, including Canada, deployed a large contingent of troops to Afghanistan beginning in late 2001 to stabilize the country and help rebuild it.
Ottawa refused in 2016 to open a public inquiry aimed at shedding light on the transfer by Canadian troops of detainees who said they had been subsequently tortured by Afghan security forces.