20/11/2020 - 10:56

A very distressing read: Reynolds

20/11/2020 - 10:56

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Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has backed her department’s handling of the Afghanistan inquiry while arguing its findings did not represent most of those serving in Australia's armed forces.

Linda Reynolds says the Brereton report's findings did not represent her or the majority of those who served in Australia's armed forces. Photo: Matt Jelonek

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has backed her department’s handling of the Afghanistan inquiry while arguing its findings did not represent most of those serving in Australia's armed forces.

Those comments, made this morning at a Politics & Policy event hosted by Business News, come one day after the release of the Brereton Report, which alleges 39 killings of Afghan non-combatants by Australian soldiers between 2005 and 2016.

Matters of alleged wrongdoing have since been referred to the Australian Federal Police.

Asked today whether the findings had diminished the standing of Australia’s defence force personnel, echoing language used in the report, Ms Reynolds said the inquiry had been comprehensive and transparent.

“I can’t think of any other nation [that] has done this,” she said.

“How do I feel? I got the report two weeks ago and it made me physically ill and it was a very distressing read.

“It certainly didn’t represent my service … and it certainly didn’t represent the service of the majority of men and women who continue to serve our nation with such great distinction.”

A special investigator was appointed on November 12 to further investigate allegations of war crimes, and Ms Reynolds has since appointed an oversight panel to aid in improving accountability in the armed forces.

Ms Reynolds today said the number of people interviewed by the inquiry and their willingness to speak said a lot about Australia and its defence personnel overall.

“To their enduring credit, many, many of those who were there actually have spoken out, sometimes possibly to their own detriment, but they have spoken out," she said.

“That also says a lot that people were willing to talk and actually say what happened and express remorse.”

The report, which was the product of a four-year long inquiry led by NSW judge and Australian Army Reserve senior officer Paul Brereton, alleged some soldiers within the SAS Regiment had been instructed to kill noncombatants for the sake of inflating their body count as well as plant weapons on non-combatants so that they appeared to be legitimate targets.

Addressing media after the report’s release yesterday, Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell blamed a misguided culture that rewarded prestige, status and power.

Ms Reynolds acknowledged those findings and argued a failure of leadership at multiple levels was to blame for what had occurred.

“There are lessons across the board,” she said.

“As the [Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell] said, it’s not just about the individuals who committed these alleged crimes, it’s also lessons for throughout the chain of command … and there are lessons for government, as well.

“We have to accept this for what it is.

“This is not the fog of war.

“These are allegations of absolute, clear-cut murder and war crimes.”

General Campbell has since said that the SAS Regiment will be disbanded and re-raised with a different title.

Ms Reynolds declined to say whether there had been any discussion of such a move prior to now, but did say she supported the move.

“It will be an enduring reminder … of what happened, and cannot ever happen again,” she said.

“It is a very powerful reminder and I think it’s appropriate.”

She also expressed support for the move to have Special Forces personnel who served in Afghanistan hand back their Meritorious Unit Citation, which is awarded as a collective group decoration.

Today’s comments come as Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith, who is suing Fairfax for reporting he said unfairly characterised him as a war criminal, offered several of his medals as collateral for a $1 million loan from Seven Group Holdings chair Kerry Stokes.

Mr Stokes has publically backed Mr Roberts-Smith's legal efforts and has said he will donate the medals to the Australian War Memorial, of which Mr Stokes is chair, if the debt cannot be repaid.

Ms Reynolds declined to comment on these matters this morning.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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