Government takes one step toward justice for war crimes, but we need one more

Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Yesterday, the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison announced the establishment of the Office of Special Investigator within the Department of Home Affairs. The Office will be headed by a senior prosecutor and will sit within the Department of Home Affairs and will be responsible for investigating war crimes before referring them for prosecution by the Commonwealth Directorate of Public Prosecution. The announcement came in response to Justice Brereton’s Report for the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force into at least 55 incidents involving alleged breaches of the laws of armed conflict.

While it is very concerning that members of the Australian Defence Forces may have broken international criminal law, it is of the utmost importance that justice is served should these allegations be true. Victims of these crimes deserve justice and Australia is obliged hold members of the military accountable to their obligations under the Geneva Conventions. However, Australia’s obligations don’t end there.

Campaign architect, Susan Hutchinson said, “As a State Party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Australia is obliged to investigate and prosecute all relevant breaches of international criminal law, not just those perpetrated by members of our defence forces.”

Prosecute; don’t perpetrate has begun writing to members of the government asking they extend the role of the Office of Special Investigator to ensure

  1. It is not temporary
  2. Its investigative remit is not exclusive to members of the Australian Defence Force

Ms Hutchinson said, “The Office of the Special Investigator needs to not just be for the temporary investigation of potential breaches of Division 268 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code perpetrated by members of the Australian Defence Force, but a permanent office by anyone who falls within the jurisdiction of Divisions 268, 270 and 271 of the legislation.”

These investigations will likely be well served by whole-of-government support. Prosecute; don’t perpetrate has campaigned for several years for whole of government cooperation on this issue and outlined a dedicated, specialised investigative unit in our budget proposals last year.

We hope that other civil society organisations and members of the human rights community will join the call for the extension of the Office of Special Investigations, helping to ensure that Australia has a permanent organisation with the specialised capacity to investigate the war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, including through sexual violence and human trafficking.

Undertaking these investigations would meet our obligations under the Rome Statute, as well as those in United Nations Security Council resolutions 2106 on conflict related sexual violence, which reiterates Member States obligation “to continue to fight impunity by investigating and prosecuting those subject to their jurisdiction who are responsible for such crimes,” and UNSCR 2331 on human trafficking of persons in armed conflict.

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