Did New Zealand commit a war crime?

by Marianne Elliott, former UN human rights officer in Afghanistan and co-founder of ActionStation

A copy of the new book ‘Hit & Run’ by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson

“It is easy for people to become merely ‘casualties’. These people had names, lives, stories. None of them were part of an insurgent group or the attack on the New Zealand patrol. Nearly all were small children and women, in a country where women are very unlikely to be fighters. But after careful checks it seems clear that none of the men were either. They were simply farmers.” p.50–51

Last night a book was published presenting compelling evidence that the New Zealand SAS was responsible for the deaths of six civilians, including a 3 year old girl, and wounding another fifteen in a raid on an Afghan village in 2010.

Before I helped co-found ActionStation I worked for two years in Afghanistan documenting violations of human rights and humanitarian law. One of our jobs was to investigate and document reports of civilian deaths caused by Afghan security forces, international military or insurgents.

Some days I would see reports of the children whose deaths I’d been investigating on the front page of the New York Times. I won’t say it was a good feeling, because nothing about that work felt good, but it did feel important. It was important that people in the US were able to read about what was being done in their name in these villages in Afghanistan, so they could then hold their own military and political leaders accountable.

I had the same feeling last night after the launch of Hit & Run, by investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson. It is important that we know what our troops did in our name. This morning international human rights lawyer Alison Cole told Radio New Zealand that the book contains enough evidence for the International Criminal Court to investigate the NZ SAS.

And that’s what I think New Zealand needs to do now. Launch a full, independent inquiry into these reports. But ActionStation isn’t just me. It’s all of us. So we just sent an email out to 9,000 ActionStation members who have taken actions with us in global peace work before, to see what they think we should do.

‘People power’ isn’t just a nice slogan at ActionStation: it is ActionStation. It’s why we’re here and how we get things done. We take our direction from our community through surveys, email, and lots of forms of digital listening.

Here are the options we sent our community. Should we?:

Some people might wonder if it is too late to do anything about this. I want to assure you that it is not too late. It is never too late to find and face the truth.

When I was in Afghanistan people would come to me to report war crimes that had been committed in their village many decades previously. They still carried the full weight of those crimes with them because they had never had any kind of justice, no apology, no acknowledgement of the terrible wrongs that had been done to them, no reparation, no closure.

Today we have the chance to do our bit to ensure that anyone whose life was irrevocably harmed by our soldiers can get that kind of closure, and some form of justice.

I’ve been in villages like Khak Khuday Dad, the small Afghan village where New Zealand soldiers lead the operation that lead to the death of Fatima and five others. I’ve interviewed mothers about their desperate efforts to protect their children from cannon shells and sniper fire.

I’ve also sat in on security briefings with commanders of ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) bases in Afghanistan in which their intelligence officers confidently delivered reports which I knew to be wrong. Dubious intelligence abounds in war, particularly in the kind of war that was being waged in Afghanistan in 2010, and it can lead to the kind of terrible errors that are described in Hit & Run.

Because of where I was based, in Western Afghanistan, I was never required to investigate an operation by the NZ SAS. But I saw enough of this extremely dubious ‘intelligence’, botched raids, lies and cover ups by other forces to be very wary of the story being told back in New Zealand about exactly what our troops were doing in our name in Afghanistan.

War is ugly, but not without it’s own rules. As a signatory to international laws of war, New Zealand has committed to conducting ourselves in accordance with those rules, and with honour, when at war. Part of what that demands of us is that we do all we can to put things right when they go horribly wrong.

The NZ Defence Force says the claims of civilian deaths were investigated by a joint Afghan and ISAF assessment team, who concluded they were unfounded. NZDF themselves have not conducted an investigation. The New Zealand public has now been presented with good reason to suspect that the joint Afghan and ISAF assessment may have got it wrong. A full inquiry would provide the NZDF with a chance to clear their name, and the public with a chance to feel confident in our military and political leaders.

New Zealand prides itself on being a force for good in the world. It won’t be comfortable to admit we’ve also sometimes been a force for great suffering and harm, but avoiding the truth doesn’t make it go away.

We work together to create a society where people and planet are more important than profit and Te Tiriti o Waitangi is honoured.