Recent media reports of allegations of pre-meditated murder of Afghan civilians by a small number of US soldiers are deeply disturbing.
The allegations were first reported last year at which time the United States launched a criminal investigation into the allegations.
Criminal charges were laid following the investigation and are now the subject of US court martial proceedings.
The US Army has apologised for the distress the terrible incident has caused, saying they stand “in stark contrast to the discipline, professionalism and respect that have characterized our Soldiers’ performance during nearly 10 years of sustained operations [in Afghanistan]”.
In this context, the United States Army has restated its commitment to the “adherence to the Law of War and the humane and respectful treatment of combatants, noncombatants, and the dead” and acknowledged that “[w]hen allegations of wrongdoing by Soldiers surface, to include the inappropriate treatment of the dead, they are fully investigated. Soldiers who commit offenses will be held accountable as appropriate”.
Australia believes that strict adherence to rules of engagement is essential on the battlefield.
Rule of Law and the protection of civilians
The rule of law is an essential basis for international relations and for national security policy.
The force of international law, and the protection it offers the Afghan people, clearly distinguishes the international effort in Afghanistan from the actions of the Taliban and its associates.
On the ground, international humanitarian law – including the principles of military necessity, proportionality, distinction and discrimination – provides the framework for Australia and ISAF’s rules of engagement.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has built a reputation over the years for professionalism and compliance with such rules of engagement.
Australian forces take all possible steps to ensure their operations do not endanger the lives of civilians.
We have prided ourselves on our high standards and we have a well regarded international reputation for doing so.
When, for example, there are incidents involving civilians, they are always investigated.
In that context, the Registrar of Military Justice has convened a General Court Martial to try charges against two of the three Australian Defence Force members relating to an incident in Afghanistan on 12 February 2009.
Pre-Trial Directions Hearings for the Court Martial are scheduled to commence soon in Sydney and the trial has been set down for 11 July 2011.
It is anticipated that the Registrar of Military Justice will convene a General Court Martial to hear the charges against the third Australian Defence Force member following the conclusion of the first court martial.
The ADF is continuing to ensure that the best possible support during this legal process is being made available to these three members.
The support measures include legal, administrative, medical and welfare assistance.
On this occasion the charges were laid by the Independent Director of Military Prosecutions. Historically such a decision has been made by convening authorities who were a part of the military command.
In 2005 the Parliament resolved, with the support of both sides of the Parliament, that these decisions should be made independently by a Director of Military Prosecutions.