16 Jul 2020

Defence Force 'code of silence' stops people from speaking up - review

11:32 am on 16 July 2020

An independent review has found the Defence Force has failed to address harmful behaviours since an action plan was implemented four years ago.

New Zealand Army soldiers inside an Australian Army vehicle during the mission rehearsal exercise for Task Group Taji 3 at RAAF Edinburgh, with about 300 Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen prepared for deployment to Iraq in exercise at RAAF Edinburgh in Adelaide, South Australia.

Photo: NZDF / Supplied

Operation Respect in 2016 was aimed at eliminating inappropriate sexual behaviour, discrimination, harassment and bullying.

The review, commissioned by the Defence Ministry and included interviews with more than 400 past and present personnel across all camps and bases, found those behaviours still exist and not enough progress has been made.

The report found there's a lack of transparency of the Defence Force's progress in addressing and preventing harm, as well as a "code of silence" that prevents people from speaking up.

It also said the culture of military discipline and command made it difficult for personnel to raise concerns.

The report has made 44 recommendations, including an audit every two years and to consult with the chief ombudsman to establish processes and remedies similar to that of the Defence Ombudsman in Australia.

Defence Minister Ron Mark said he acknowledges the brave people who came forward and discussed their experiences with the reviewers.

"The review was critical and clearly outlines there is more work to be done in this space - this is not where the Defence Force wanted to be. While I am disappointed, the Defence Force has welcomed this report and is accepting of this criticism," he said.

"I've met with the Chief of Defence Force and the reviewers to discuss the way forward and I am encouraged to see that the Defence Force remains committed to addressing these issues."

He said he was confident that the 44 recommendations in the report will be appropriately addressed.

"The two recommendations put forward for the Minister of Defence will be considered carefully, and the Defence Force has initiated contact with both the Ombudsman and the Auditor General to discuss potential options. NZDF are now focused on addressing the recommendations in the report and I will be briefed regularly on their progress," he said.

"I also note that disclosures of inappropriate behaviour have increased since the implementation of Operation Respect, and it is important that reporting of these matters continues. I would encourage personnel to continue to reach out and report any unacceptable behaviour."

Chief of Defence Force, air marshal Kevin Short, said some incidents referred to in the report were unacceptable and inappropriate and he welcomed the review and the recommendations that had been made.

"The review is critical of the progress made by Operation Respect while also acknowledging that key initiatives have been important and the intent of the programme is good," he said.

"I acknowledge the criticisms and am concerned that while we have made substantial progress since 2016, we have not made enough progress.

"It is obvious we need to dig deeper to meet the challenges that Operation Respect was introduced to address. The Defence Force has already started to implement some of the recommendations and we will now put priority on reviewing the others for implementation. "

The report said the most significant changes the Defence Force could make to build more trust in the organisation and the processes include being transparent and accountable, providing independent complaints channel, promoting external and independent support channel, creating a data management system to assess progress and engaging leaders at all levels to lead the management of harmful behaviours.

Overall, the reviewers found that some progress is being made.

Positives include:

  • The establishment of the Sexual Assault Response Team and Sexual Assault Prevention Response Advisors;
  • The provision of Sexual Ethics and Responsible Relationships training;
  • The creation of the Operation Respect Steering Group with members external to the NZDF; and
  • The buy-in from many great leaders across the organisation who are committed to making a difference but who need more tools and resources to achieve their objectives.

However, the review also found significant barriers to progress.

Challenges include:

  • A lack of transparency and accountability of NZDF's progress in addressing and preventing harm;
  • The current culture still encourages a 'code of silence';
  • The culture of military discipline and command prevents personnel from raising concerns of speaking out; and
  • The culture also makes it is difficult to call out behaviours or decisions made by personnel more senior in the hierarchy.

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