New video evidence of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan must spur ICC inquiry

New video evidence of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan must spur ICC inquiry
Comment: In light of this new, shocking evidence, an ICC investigation into into war crimes is now more urgent than ever, writes CJ Werleman.
5 min read
19 Mar, 2020
Australian soldiers in Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan, January 2013 [Getty]
Lost in the international media's round-the-clock coverage of the coronavirus crisis was a potentially pivotal moment in the history of armed conflict, with the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruling that its chief prosecutor could soon open an investigation into allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan, by both the Taliban and United States led coalition.

This inquiry takes on even more urgency given newly released video footage that appears to show a member of Australia's Special Forces shooting and killing a young unarmed Afghan man at point blank range.

On Monday night, the Australian current affairs programme Four Corners aired helmet-camera footage it had obtained showing members of Australia's elite Special Air Services (SAS) carrying out a sweep of a village in Oruzgan province in May 2012.

As the soldiers make their way through the wheat field, a local man is found lying on his back after being subdued by an SAS squad dog. A patrol scout identified only as "Soldier C" then calls out to his superior officer, asking, "Do you want me to drop this c**t?" Seconds later the soldier shoots the young man dead at close range.

An Australian Defense Force (ADF) inquiry into the incident cleared "Soldier C" of any wrongdoing.

The programme featured commentary from Braden Chapman, a former SAS soldier, who claimed it was routine for Australian soldiers to plant radios and weapons on the bodies of dead Afghan non-combatants to conceal evidence of war crimes. He also described how he had witnessed a still-serving SAS soldier shoot an unarmed man twice in the chest and once in the head, after the victim had thrown away his phone and held up his hands.

"Ok, we're executing people now" Chapman said of the encounter.

These incidents take place within a culture of immunity, toxic masculinity and racism

These are not isolated incidents, and nor can they be dismissed as the murderous actions of a few "bad apples". Rather, they take place within a culture of immunity, toxic masculinity and racism, a reality affirmed by the Inspector General of the ADF, who confirmed last month that he is investigating 55 separate incidents in which elite Australian soldiers are alleged to have unlawfully killed non-combatants.

There's no disputing the fact US-led coalition forces have carried out war crimes in Afghanistan. Even the US Senate's investigation into the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" acknowledges US military forces and contractors violated the Geneva Convention in torturing detainees in Afghanistan, and at other secret sites around the world.

Over the course of the past decade or so, I have interviewed those who have stood either side of the US torture programme - people who dished out acts of merciless cruelty and others who were on the receiving end of it.

Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, and 
Ali al-Marri, a Qatari national are two of them. And what I have come to know about torture - a war crime - is that it not only fails to gain intelligence but also it leaves both the victim and perpetrator emotionally and psychologically wrecked.

Read more: US-Taliban deal overshadowed by Afghan political chaos

When I asked Begg for his reaction to the ICC declaring its intent to investigate allegations of US-led coalition war crimes in Afghanistan, he explained how he had already given evidence to the Court not only regarding the torture he endured, but also his witnessing of two fellow detainees being beaten to death at a US military base in 2002.

"I submitted that evidence to the ICC in 2018 and, through my organization CAGE, we found many others who had suffered a similar fate and were prepared to relive their ordeal so that survivors and their families might heal through restorative justice that ensures perpetrators are held accountable," wrote Begg in a recent opinion piece for Byline Times.

The evidence is so overwhelming and so thoroughly documented, that Afghans submitted 1.17 million statements to the ICC in a three month period following the Court first signaling its intent to investigate possible war crimes in their homeland in 2018.

"The statements include accounts of alleged atrocities, not only by groups like the Taliban and the Islamic State group (IS), but also Afghan Security Forces and government-affiliated warlords, the US-led coalition, and foreign and domestic spy agencies," Abdul Wadood Pedram of the Human Rights and Eradication of Violence Organization told The Independent.

The fact that only the US government has expressed opposition to the ICC's probable inquiry is both revealing and expected, with the US Secretary of State accusing the court of having an anti-American bias, and threatening to "take all necessary measures to protect our citizens from this renegade, unlawful, so-called court."

The Trump administration went so far as to revoke the visa of the court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, after she signaled her intentions to pursue the case in 2019.

The evidence is so overwhelming and so thoroughly documented, that Afghans submitted 1.17 million statements to the ICC in a three month period

"The US has responded by threatening members of the ICC with capture and punishment. It's hard to believe but the Taliban, who are also being investigated by the ICC, have made no such threats. Such is the US government's interaction with the process of justice. They are simply unaccountable for anything they do," Begg told me.

While the US is not a party of the treaty that created the ICC, it remains a mechanism to hold leaders accountable for their actions. That the US has a president who has made pardoning convicted US war criminals a matter of business as usual, and that the Australian military inquiry acquitted a soldier of carrying out cold blood murder, further emphasises the need for independent international judiciaries, particularly in regards to the potential checking power they hold over the actions of powerful states.

Prosecuting the United States, and its powerful global allies, including Australia, the United Kingdom, and others, will therefore, go a long way to bringing about order in the international system, as well as a measure of justice to the Afghan people. 

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.