Peter Dutton has moved to stamp his authority as defence minister by overruling a decision to strip meritorious unit citations from about 3,000 special forces soldiers who served in Afghanistan.
The new defence minister told radio 2GB on Monday that war crimes allegations were shocking but added: “My judgment was that we shouldn’t be punishing the 99% for the sins of the 1%.”
Australia is grappling with the results of a long-running inquiry into alleged war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, with a new office of the special investigator to consider the evidence ahead of potential prosecutions.
The Brereton inquiry found “credible” evidence to implicate 25 current or former Australian defence force personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 individuals and the cruel treatment of two others.
When announcing his response to the inquiry report in November, the chief of defence force, Angus Campbell, said units “live and fight as a team”.
“With this in mind, I have accepted the inspector general’s recommendation and will write to the governor general requesting he revoke the meritorious unit citation for Special Operations Task Groups who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013,” Campbell said at the time.
But within weeks the government signalled a rethink of that decision. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said in late November that “no decisions have been made on that”.
Dutton’s move ensures all of the soldiers will retain the meritorious unit citation unless they are convicted of war crimes, or are dismissed for being an accessory to a crime or for failing to uphold army standards, the Australian newspaper reported on Monday.
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Dutton, who is due to visit SAS regiment in Perth later on Monday, said people who were proven to have done the wrong thing – “that means by a jury or by a process within defence” – would still lose the citation. But he said the 99% who had done the right thing “deserve our recognition, our praise, our honour”.
In an interview with 2GB, Dutton avoided criticising Campbell for the original decision, saying the call the defence chief had made last year had been “perfectly reasonable”.
“He’s pragmatic, he understands that I’ve been able to look at all of the facts afresh,” Dutton said.
“There’s not a finer soldier in the country than Angus Campbell ... He was shocked like everyone else at the serious allegations that were being made in relation to some people.”
But Dutton noted that the office of the special investigator would examine the war crimes allegations in detail.
When asked whether Campbell would be commenting on the development, a defence spokesperson issued a statement saying the decision “provides certainty” for current and former serving defence personnel who were authorised to wear the meritorious unit citation insignia.
The defence spokesperson said Campbell had previously “accepted the inspector general’s recommendation to recommend the cancellation” of the citation but that Dutton had decided “not to support the recommendation”.
“Current and former entitled serving Defence personnel can continue to wear the insignia for the MUC awarded to Special Operations Task Group (Task Force 66), unless they are convicted in a court of law, or administratively identified by Defence as implicated and therefore, not deserving of retaining the honour,” the defence spokesperson said.
Labor’s defence spokesperson, Brendan O’Connor, backed Dutton’s decision, saying defence personnel who were “free from wrongdoing should not be adversely affected”.
But O’Connor accused the government of failing to show leadership at the time the Brereton report was released “leaving it entirely up to the CDF of the Australian defence force”.
He called on Dutton to release “any new facts” behind the government’s change of mind. “To date, we have not been presented with any new evidence and therefore, we can only conclude that the defence minister has decided to make a decision at odds with Angus Campbell,” O’Connor said.
The Guardian reported last year that former and serving special forces soldiers were frustrated at the failure of the Brereton war crimes report to sanction commanders at the highest level and incensed over a decision to strip the meritorious conduct citation for the entire special operations task group between 2007 and 2013.
Former SAS officer and Vietnam veteran Michael von Berg said: “I’ve had calls from old and young on the subject. They are saying they understand the reasons and don’t agree with the decision. You are punishing everybody when in fact there are some really good troopers in SAS who had nothing to do with this.”
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