The Australian defence force chief, General Angus Campbell, says he accepts officers and more senior commanders bear some of the responsibility for the handling of alleged war crimes against special forces in Afghanistan.
Former and serving special forces soldiers have told Guardian Australia they are frustrated at the failure of the landmark Brereton report to sanction commanders at the highest level, while the International Committee of the Red Cross described the alleged war crimes as “deeply troubling and disturbing”.
After a four-year inquiry, Maj Gen Paul Brereton found credible information to substantiate the alleged murder of 39 Afghans – prisoners, farmers and other civilians – by 25 Australian special forces soldiers, either as principals or accessories.
Campbell responded to the criticism of a lack of accountability higher up the chain during an interview with the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday.
He was asked about the report’s finding that commanders “indirectly contributed to the criminal behaviour” by “sanitising or embellishing reporting to avoid attracting questions”.
Campbell said the report highlighted “that there are officers in command roles in the special operations task group and indeed in higher appointments who had a responsibility to deal with issues and to completely and openly report, and he finds fault there”.
“I accept that,” Campbell said.
“In terms of responsibility, and then accountability, that’s part of the issue of dealing with and working through on a case-by-case basis exactly what happened and who is to be held to account.”
Campbell also reflected, briefly, on his own role as commander in the Middle East in 2011. He said he, said he, ultimately, would be held to account “to make sure that this report is dealt with thoroughly” but also for his own performance in the Middle East.
The ADF chief added that there was “no shortage of officers, senior noncommissioned officers and soldiers, who are looking at this report and reflecting on their part in this story and it is not a good story at all”.
Campbell said he was “determined to see deep, comprehensive and enduring change where it is needed” and fix the problems exposed in last week’s report, otherwise “this horror may appear again”.
He cautiously backed calls for the ADF to mandate helmet or body cameras for Australian special forces, as it would allow for the creation of a “digital archive” and help to resolve any claims that arose in future.
Australian special forces had been “very busy over the last 20 years” and some roles in Afghanistan should have been rotated to other elements of the ADF earlier, Campbell said.
Campbell was asked by the ABC’s David Speers whether defence legal officers may have been part of a cover-up, given the report’s finding of the dismissal of complaints from groups on the ground such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
“I read it as a slow erosion and then ultimately a suborning of what are meant to be independent review processes,” Campbell replied.
“Instead of a mechanism to ensure that patrol reporting was correctly reviewed from a law of armed conflict perspective, we see in Justice Brereton’s report that over time this governance work was no longer rigorous, no longer independent.”
Brereton found “a dangerous gap between what the force had become acclimatised to and what was actually acceptable”.
Complaints made through the ICRC, the local human rights commission or local elders “were routinely passed off as Taliban propaganda or motivated by a desire for compensation”, according to the report, so these “warning signs” did not lead to action.
The ICRC, which acts as the “guardian” of international humanitarian law, said any violation of the rules of war was “one too many”.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, the director general of the ICRC, Robert Mardini, described the alleged conduct as “deeply troubling and disturbing” without commenting on any specific events.
“But what is important is to take action, and we feel that action is being taken and this is something that we commend,” Mardini said.
Speaking from Geneva, Mardini said his organisation remained independent and neutral so it could not canvass “whether or not we were informed about these particular violations”.
But he said the ICRC had seen “so many terrible things happen” during four decades of conflict in Afghanistan.
“These things, however painful, disturbing, shocking are unfortunately what our delegates see in armed conflict,” Mardini said.
“But I think the main point here is what now the Australian government is going to do about it and the very fact that there is an investigation, that it is now in the public domain, that action will be taken by the highest military command is reassuring.”
A new office of the special investigator will examine allegations against 19 individuals, preparing briefs for potential prosecution through the Australian justice system.
Mardini said adherence to international humanitarian law was “not negotiable” because it reduced the human cost of conflict and “needs to be respected by all – period”.
The ICRC, he said, appreciated the seriousness with which the Australian government and ADF were taking the Brereton report.
“Of course, for the victims and their families, these are very hard realities, and they’re grappled with for a long period of time. This is why also investigation, accountability and due process is important because it helps families to recover, heal and move on,” Mardini said.
Mardini visited Afghanistan earlier this month and toured hospitals in both government-controlled and Taliban-controlled areas.
He said the country had been “torn by four decades of conflict” and the current security situation was “dire”.
“What is very sad and ironic is even as peace talks are taking place in Doha it is clear to us that there has been an intensification of hostilities in Afghanistan in recent weeks with, unfortunately, a resulting increase in the number of weapon-wounded being admitted to hospitals,” Mardini said.