20 Nov 2020

NZ Defence Force must expose troops' 'guilty secrets' - Hager

4:41 pm on 20 November 2020

Journalist Nicky Hager believes New Zealand troops may have behaved in a similar way to Australian troops who are alleged to have committed unlawful killings in Afghanistan.

US Army soldiers from 2-506 Infantry 101st Airborne Division, Afghan National Army soldiers and a New Zealand Army soldier take cover as a CH-47 Chinook helicopter lands to transport them nto the Spira mountains in Khost province, in November 2008.  AFP PHOTO/DAVID FURST (Photo by DAVID FURST / AFP)

US and New Zealand soldiers take cover as a helicopter arrives to transport them to Khost province in Afghanistan in November 2008. Photo: AFP

Australia's Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell announced yesterday that there is information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 special forces personnel in Afghanistan.

He said a four-year inquiry had found "credible information" supporting allegations of war crimes by the country's special forces.

Major General Paul Brereton's report also said junior soldiers were often required by their patrol commanders to shoot prisoners to get their first kill in a practice known as "blooding".

Hager, whose co-authored book Hit and Run led to the Operation Burnham inquiry, told Midday Report that the results of the Australian inquiry are disgusting. They paint a picture far worse than any Australian would imagine and probably mean that the Australian SAS should be closed down because it's got such a serious culture problem.

"But at the same I also feel impressed by Australia because it was the Australian military that bothered to investigate itself."

This country's army said today that no New Zealand soldiers are persons of interest as a result of the inquiry.

The SAS was in Afganistan for several deployments between 2001 and 2012.

The chief of Army Major General John Boswell said the inquiry makes no recommendations about any New Zealanders.

However, Hager said the army was just confirming that this country's forces weren't operating with the Australians during the time of the alleged atrocities.

"Anyone working in this field, including me, has heard a series of similarly ugly rumours, of guilty secrets inside our SAS just like they lasted for so long inside the Australian SAS just as guilty secrets.

"And they sit there waiting to be investigated in New Zealand as well. Unfortunately, we're going to have to face sooner or later something like what Australia is doing."

Author Nicky Hager during his submissions at the Operation Burnham Inquiry at the High Court in Wellington.

Nicky Hager: "Anyone working in this field, including me, has heard a series of similarly ugly rumours." Photo: Pool / Mark Mitchell/NZ Herald

Asked if similar behaviour might be uncovered by an inquiry, he replied: "Yes, I do think that. What we had with Operation Burnham was just one incident and we all saw how hard it was to get the New Zealand Defence Force to admit they'd done anything wrong there which was that they never admitted they'd done anything wrong."

He said anyone in the New Zealand military knows they are always told to never speak up and they must close ranks.

The government needed to order the Defence Force to hold an immediate investigation.

"Just like Australia if you've got guilty secrets like this festering away you have to open it up. There needs to be a kind of a reconciliation, an investigation phase... that's the way you fix these things. You don't leave them as bad stuff at the heart of your bureaucracy. We're just waiting for people who've got the guts to do it now."

He said guilty secrets can't be kept if people speak up but up until now, the military "has kept a lid on it" in contrast to Australia where the Defence Force advertised for people to share their stories. If that started to happen, it would be inevitable that the government would need to act, Hager said.

Defence Minister Peeni Henare said he did not think New Zealand had a similar culture problem as Australia with its defence personnel.

He said the behaviour and incidents outlined in the Australian Inquiry report were "very concerning."

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Minister of Defence Peeni Henare. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

"I understand the recommendations are being considered and will be actioned in due course," he said.

"NZ and Australia have a long standing bilateral defence relationship - as our closest ally, our relationship will remain strong."

Asked if he had any concerns about culture problems of this nature within the NZDF, he said he did not.

"The Australian Chief of Defence Force General Campbell advised our Chief of Defence Force Air Marshal Short that no New Zealand service personnel were persons of interest to the inquiry, and affirmed that the inquiry made no recommendations with regard to New Zealand or any other foreign military."

Hager's co-author identifies clear differences

Investigative journalist Jon Stephenson, the co-author of Hit and Run, told RNZ's First Up there is a difference between the way Australian forces behaved and the conduct of New Zealand forces.

It's clear that for Operation Burnham the allegations concerned civilian casualties but they weren't deliberate. The New Zealand forces were involved in an action in Afghanistan that led to civilian casualties but they didn't intend for those people to die, Stephenson said.

"Whereas in the Australian case, there's a clear difference, in that they deliberately planned and carried out unlawful actions, alleged war crimes - shooting people who were in their custody and posed no threat or civilians."

Green Party defence spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said her thoughts went out to the Afghani community and the families affected by the alleged unlawful killings.

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Green Party defence spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

She said the were lessons New Zealand needed to learn too.

"You'll hear our military saying there is no evidence that New Zealand has ever engaged in anything like this, the culture is really different, but the problem the Operation Burnham report uncovered is that there's a lapse in transparency and communication, so we don't actually know," she said.

Ghahraman said off the back of the Burnham report, an expert panel was set up to review the Defence Force's structures.

"I will be engaging with the new defence minister to ensure that this expert panel is appropriately ensuring an improvement to our processes here in New Zealand," she said.

"I will also be inquiring as to whether the top officials operating at the time of bad communication and behaviour have been brought forward for questioning."

Stephenson said it's important for us to consider if our troops had served as many rotations in the same high intensity conflict areas and had lost as many troops in conflicts as the Australians did whether such a culture might evolve.

He believes that NZ troops would not have resorted to this type of behaviour.

"I think there are significant cultural problems in the Australian military. They have got a very different attitude towards indigenous people than our troopers have. That's not to say that our forces have acted impeccably at all times, but I do think there are significant cultural differences, training differences between New Zealand and Australia."

With New Zealand's smaller numbers it was also easier to identify bad behaviour.

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