Malaysia: End Abusive Immigration Detention

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Police officers detain an immigrant from an apartment under enhanced lockdown in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 1, 2020. 
© 2020 Reuters/Lim Huey Teng

(Bangkok) – Malaysia should immediately release all children held in immigration detention facilities and allow the United Nations refugee agency regular access to those facilities, Human Rights Watch said today.

Malaysia’s Home Ministry reported that, as of October 26, 2020, 756 children were being held in immigration detention facilities nationwide, including 326 from Myanmar who are detained without parents or guardians. Malaysia has denied the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to immigration facilities since August 2019, leaving the agency unable to determine whether those children and others detained have already been determined to be refugees or are entitled to refugee protection.

“It’s appalling that Malaysia is detaining so many children in overcrowded and unsanitary detention facilities, often without parents or guardians,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “These vulnerable children, including many who likely fled atrocities in Myanmar, should be cared for, not treated as criminals.”

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Malaysia is a party, prohibits the detention of children for immigration reasons. A 2019 UN global study on children deprived of liberty reported that even if detention conditions are good, detaining children exacerbates existing health conditions and causes new ones, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal thoughts. Detention also exposes children to the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, even in countries that respect the obligation not to detain children with unrelated adults. In addition, the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, has called on all governments to release children from detention, specifically including immigration detention, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention but is still bound by customary international refugee law. Over 175,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom come from Myanmar, are registered with the UNHCR office but have no legal status and remain unable to work or enroll in government schools.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional government has discounted the rights of refugees, with the home minister stating that they have “no status, rights, or basis to present any demands to the government.” In April, the Malaysian Navy pushed boatloads of desperate Rohingya refugees who were trying to reach Malaysia’s shores back out to sea, claiming that they were doing so to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Those permitted to land were detained as “illegal migrants,” with some prosecuted for immigration violations and imprisoned. The Malaysian government did not respond when a massive, xenophobic campaign targeted Rohingya refugee leaders and their community, as well as their Malaysian defenders, in late April. 

Since May, the authorities have conducted numerous raids, ensnaring thousands of migrants, including children, and detaining them in overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention centers to await deportation. The National Task Force commander, Vice-Admiral Aris Adi Tan Abdullah, told local media on November 7 that of the more than 8,000 people detained for immigration violations between May and early November, only 281 had been deported, with the rest remaining in immigration detention centers. Several UN experts expressed concern that the crackdown was “severely undermining efforts to fight the pandemic” and at least five immigration detention centers have subsequently had outbreaks of Covid-19.

The Malaysian authorities should only use immigration detention as an exceptional measure of last resort, and ensure that their immigration detention centers meet international standards under the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (“Mandela Rules”). The authorities should urgently identify and release children along with family members and provide safe alternatives to detention to which humanitarian agencies have regular access. The authorities should also identify and immediately release all detained refugees who are registered with UNHCR.

The Malaysian government should immediately allow UNHCR to exercise its mandate by allowing it to determine asylum seekers’ refugee status and facilitate durable solutions, including integration in Malaysia, for those recognized as refugees. The government should also ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and establish asylum procedures consistent with international standards for stateless people and foreign nationals at risk of persecution in their home countries.

“The spread of Covid-19 makes it even more urgent for the Malaysian government to reassess its practice of detaining migrants, including children,” Robertson said. “Immigration authorities should stop playing games with people’s lives and immediately release all detained children and grant the UN refugee agency access to all detained refugees and asylum seekers.”

Uganda: Authorities Weaponize Covid-19 for Repression

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Musician and opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine during a press conference in Kampala, Uganda, October 1, 2019.

© 2019 Sipa via AP Images

(Nairobi) – The arrest and detention of presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi, is a sign of the growing repression of opposition politicians ahead of Uganda’s national elections scheduled for January 2021. The Ugandan authorities should release Kyagulanyi immediately and unconditionally and respect the rights of people to peacefully protest his detention.

Security forces arrested Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, on November 18, 2020, in Luuka district, Eastern Uganda, ahead of a planned campaign rally. The police spokesperson, Fred Enanga, said in a statement that Kyagulanyi, the presidential candidate of the National Unity Platform, was arrested for allegedly breaching Covid-19 regulations by mobilizing large crowds for his campaign rallies. A spokesperson for Kyagulanyi said that his lawyers have been denied access to him. The authorities responded with teargas and live bullets to the protests that followed in Kampala and elsewhere, which led to 16 deaths, with 45 people injured, the police said.

“The increasing spate of violence so early in the campaign season does not bode well for the weeks to come before the elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities can stem the slide toward further violence by ending the harassment of journalists and opposition candidates and their supporters, and the violent disruption of their campaign rallies.”

On the same day in Gulu, Northern Uganda, the police arrested and later released another opposition presidential candidate, Patrick Oboi Amuriat of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party. This was his second arrest in two days for allegedly planning an “unauthorized procession.”

Video footage circulating on social media shows men in civilian clothes apparently working alongside security forces to disperse crowds during the protests, brandishing guns on the streets of Kampala and shooting toward the sky. Human Rights Watch has not verified the authenticity of the footage or the identity of the people shown.

In the last two weeks, the authorities have used Covid-19 regulations as a pretext to violate rights and clamp down on the opposition and the media. They have arrested opposition party leader and journalist, and dispersed opposition campaign rallies with teargas for allegedly flouting Covid-19 guidelines.

Despite attracting similarly large crowds in Kotido and Gulu, security forces allowed rallies and processions for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party to continue undisrupted.

On November 3, the police smashed the window of Kyagulanyi’s vehicle, trying to arrest him at Kyambogo University in Kampala after the Electoral Commission confirmed his nomination to run for president. Kyagulanyi told the media that the police sprayed pepper spray into his eyes during the arrest. He was later taken to his home in Magere in Kampala and released. Earlier that day police also arrested Amuriat as he made his way to Kyambogo for the presidential nominations, and later released him without his shoes.

The Kampala-based African Centre for Media Excellence reported that the police used pepper spray on journalists on November 3 as they covered a procession by Kyagulanyi’s supporters in Kyambogo and arrested Ronald Kakooza, a journalist from the Vision Group, while he covered events at the Forum for Democratic Change headquarters in Najjanankumbi, on the outskirts of Kampala. On November 5,the police shot another journalist, Moses Bwayo, in the face with a rubber bullet as he was filming Kyagulanyi arriving at his party’s office.

Since campaigns began two weeks ago, the police have violently dispersed opposition rallies and blocked opposition members from reaching their venues. On November 9, the police in Mbale fired teargas to disperse crowds as Amuriat traveled through the city to kick off his campaign in Soroti, Eastern Uganda. In Lira, police used teargas to disperse crowds ahead of Kyagulanyi’s campaign rally there on November 12.

Amid the chaos, unidentified people reportedly attacked two NBS television journalists, Daniel Lutaaya and Thomas Kitimbo, as they covered Kyagulanyi’s campaign, stealing their property – a laptop was stolen, as well as camera chargers and phones – and vandalizing their car. On November 16, police again fired teargas and live bullets to disperse crowds in Mayuge district during Kyagulanyi’s campaign events there, reportedly for not complying with Covid-19 crowd restrictions.

Any use of force and “less-lethal” weapons such as teargas must comply with international law as articulated in the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Force should only be used when other means of de-escalation have proven inadequate. When police use force, they should ensure that it is strictly proportionate to the danger to public order posed by protesters and seek to minimize the risk of injuries and protect the rights to life and health. The police can only employ firearms in self-defense when “less extreme means,” are insufficient and it is “strictly unavoidable to protect life.” The Ugandan government is obligated to ensure that excessive use of force is subject to scrutiny and in particular that there is an effective investigation into the deaths and injuries of all civilians that leads to accountability for unlawful killings and injuries and access to a remedy for the victims.

Before the election campaigns formally started, the authorities blocked opposition meetings and rallies. In January, police blocked Kyagulanyi from conducting meetings in Gayaza, Gulu, and Lira, allegedly because he had not met all the requirements of the Public Order Management Act. Police later arrested Kyagulanyi and journalists covering his events in Gayaza and Lira, and reportedly ordered at least one reporter to delete his footage of the events.

While enforcing the government’s Covid-19 measures, earlier in the year, security forces shot at civilians and beat and arbitrarily arrested hundreds. The police arrested vendors, journalists, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. In April, police arrested and badly beat an opposition member of parliament, Francis Zaake, for distributing food to his constituents after the government banned public and private transport, suspended non-essential services, and closed non-food markets to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The government said he failed to channel his food donations through a government-organized task force.

“The authorities have consistently used Covid-19 guidelines as an excuse for violent repression of the opposition rather than to safeguard the democratic playing field for free and fair elections,” said Nyeko, “The Ugandan government should instead focus on ensuring that the security forces respect the rule of law, are held accountable for abuses, and act in an impartial manner.”

Still no Accountability for Hong Kong’s Police Force

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A protester is tackled by riot police during a demonstration outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, June 12, 2019.
© 2019 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Among the gloomy news coming out of Hong Kong is a bright spot: on November 19, the Hong Kong High Court ruled that the government had violated its Bill of Rights by not providing an independent mechanism for complaints about police. Two days earlier, Professor Clifford Stott, an independent policing exert in the UK, published a report concluding that the indiscriminate use of force by the Hong Kong police escalated the 2019 protests. Stott had last year quit a panel appointed by the Hong Kong government to investigate police conduct, citing the body’s limited investigative powers.

These findings will come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed police brutality over six months of 2019. Police officers were seen beating, pepper-spraying and teargassing people, including those subdued on the ground; shooting and blinding several, including a journalist; unnecessarily tackling demonstrators to the ground, including pregnant women, children and older people; and then giving patently improbable and outright false explanations about their actions in press conferences.

No police officers alleged to have used excessive force during the 2019 protests have been held accountable. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, still claims that the existing police complaints mechanism – one that is part of the Police Force – is adequate. Even more disturbing is that the Hong Kong police have taken on greater authority, obstructing efforts to hold them accountable by arbitrarily arresting people for uncovering police abuses and by restricting press freedom.

Hong Kong public opinion polls have consistently shown that over 80 percent of people support an independent commission of inquiry to look into police misconduct.

Beijing has intentionally misrepresented the protest movement as pro-independence to justify tightening its grip over the territory. But denying people’s real grievances seems to be further angering its residents, whose desires for democracy, justice, and accountability are only growing despite increased repression.

The Hong Kong government has not yet responded to the court ruling. Beijing will likely put even more pressure on Hong Kong’s judiciary, the last major state institution standing to protect people’s freedoms, to fall in line.

Resolving grievances will come from respecting human rights. Authorities should establish an independent commission of inquiry into the 2019 police brutality, create an independent body to investigate police misconduct more broadly, and respect – not trample – the human rights commitments under Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Synthesis study demonstrates phytoplankton can bloom below Arctic sea ice

Small photosynthetic marine algae are a key component of the Arctic marine ecosystem but their role for the ecology of the Arctic Ocean have been underestimated for decades. That’s the conclusion of a team of scientists who synthesized more than half a century of research about the occurrence, magnitude and composition of phytoplankton blooms under Arctic sea ice. The results were published in a special issue of Frontiers in Marine Science devoted to Arctic Ocean research.

Study confirms contribution of bioenergy to climate change mitigation

That biofuels can contribute to a cleaner global energy mix is widely accepted, but the net benefits of bioenergy in terms of mitigating greenhouse gases (GHG) are moot. Some argue, for example, that biofuels are not sustainable because the conversion of non-agricultural land to grow energy crops could lead to a significant initial decrease in carbon storage, creating what is known as a “biofuel carbon debt”.

Thailand: Police Violence Against Democracy Demonstrators

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Democracy demonstrators take cover with inflatable ducks and umbrellas as police use water cannons during a protest rally near the parliament in Bangkok, November 17, 2020. 
© 2020 AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn

(Bangkok) – Thai police unnecessarily used water cannons and teargas against peaceful democracy demonstrators outside the parliament in Bangkok on November 17, 2020, in violation of international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today.

At about 2:25 p.m., police attempted to prevent a demonstration organized by the People’s Movement from reaching the parliament, where a debate on constitutional amendments, including possible reforms to the monarchy, was underway. Human Rights Watch observed crowd control units using water cannon laced with purple dye and an apparent teargas chemical, as well as teargas grenades and pepper spray grenades to disperse thousands of demonstrators, including many students. The dispersal operation continued until the demonstration ended at about 9 p.m. Protests on November 18 proceeded without violence.

On November 18, the spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres “expressed concern about the [human rights] situation in Thailand … it’s disturbing to see the repeated use of less lethal weapons against peaceful protesters, including water cannons … it’s very important that the government of Thailand refrain from the use of force and ensures the full protection of all people in Thailand who are exercising a fundamental peaceful right to protest.”

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Police use water cannons to disperse democracy demonstrators near the parliament in Bangkok, November 17, 2020. 
© 2020 AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

“The Thai authorities should heed the advice of the UN Secretary-General and stop using excessive or unnecessary force against demonstrators, while preventing violence by any group so the situation doesn’t escalate out of control,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Thai authorities should promptly and impartially investigate the violence, including the alleged use of firearms by pro-government demonstrators, and prosecute all those responsible for abuses regardless of their political affiliation or rank.”

At least 55 people were injured, most from inhaling teargas, according to the Bangkok Emergency Medical Service. The injured included six democracy demonstrators who suffered gunshot wounds during a clash with pro-government ultra-royalist groups near the protests. Photos taken at the scene show that the teargas and pepper spray grenades were manufactured in the United States.

The Thai government should transparently and impartially investigate all aspects of the November 17 violence, Human Rights Watch said. This should include an inquiry into the circumstances and decision-making process for the extensive use of water cannons and teargas by the police against peaceful demonstrators. The Thai government should be clear that its rules on the use of force by law enforcement comply with international human rights standards and are strictly followed at all times.

Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and other international human rights standards, law enforcement may only use force when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. The 2020 United Nations guidance on less-lethal weapons in law enforcement states that “Water cannon should only be used in situations of serious public disorder where there is a significant likelihood of loss of life, serious injury, or the widespread destruction of property.” In addition, water cannon should “not target a jet of water at an individual or group of persons at short-range owing to the risk of causing permanent blindness or secondary injuries if persons are propelled energetically by the water jet.” In line with international standards, teargas should only be employed when necessary to prevent further physical harm and should not be used to disperse nonviolent demonstrations.

The Thai government has shown increased hostility toward democracy demonstrations, which started on July 18 and later spread across the country. Demonstrators have called for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to harassment for exercising freedom of expression. Some of the protests included demands to curb the king’s powers.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 90 protesters currently face illegal assembly charges for holding peaceful protests in Bangkok and other provinces since July. Some protest leaders have also been charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, for making demands regarding reforms of the monarchy.

International human rights law, as expressed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and stifled public discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the monarchy’s role in society.

Over the past decade, authorities have prosecuted hundreds of activists and dissidents on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views. In addition, over the past six months, the authorities have used emergency measures to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies and harass pro-democracy activists.

“The Thai government should end the police crackdown on peaceful demonstrations or risk further unnecessary violence,” Adams said. “Concerned governments and the United Nations should publicly urge the Thai government to end its political repression and instead engage in dialogue on democratic reforms.”

Greece Commits to End “Protective” Child Detention

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Unaccompanied children line up for an evening meal at a detention facility run by the Greek police.
 

© 2015 Kelly Lynn Lunde

In a huge victory for children’s rights, the Greek government is ending the long-standing practice of detaining unaccompanied migrant children in jail cells.

The announcement was made on November 18 by the Migration and Asylum Minister of Greece, Notis Mitarakis. As of that date no unaccompanied migrant children remained in police custody, he said.

Human Rights Watch published its first report on the consequences of the “protective custody” regime—as this practice is called in Greece—in 2008. Since then, we have interviewed dozens of unaccompanied children who found themselves detained by Greek police for weeks and in some cases months in small, overcrowded and unsanitary police station cells. In some cases, they were held with unrelated adults – often criminal detainees – despite the increased risk of abuse and sexual violence. In December 2016, we published yet another report, renewing our call to Greek authorities to end this practice. International law prohibits any form of migration detention for children.

Since last April, many people joined Human Rights Watch’s #FreeTheKids campaign, calling on Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to immediately release unaccompanied migrant children who were in detention and transfer them to safe and open child-friendly facilities.

Greece’s pledge to end the practice is an important move to protect children and resonates deeply among those who have worked tirelessly to defend the rights of these kids for years, and took part in this campaign.

To fulfill its pledge, Greece should act quickly to repeal the legal provisions that allow children to be detained in so-called protective custody. Greece should also increase its shelter capacity, find alternatives to detention, and establish a functional and comprehensive foster family system, which would benefit Greek children as well.

But the EU also needs to help. The European Commission should financially support Greece in its efforts to respect migrant children’s rights. Other EU member states should speed up family reunification for children with relatives in their territories and should relocate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children – even if they lack family ties.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect sub-headline.

Lame Duck US Congress Should Pass Bill to Study Reparations for Slavery

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A young boy raises his fist during a demonstration in Atlanta, Georgia, May 31, 2020.
© 2020 Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Before the 116th US Congress adjourns for the year, it has a chance to do something historic: vote on House Resolution (H.R.) 40, a bill that would establish an expert commission to investigate the legacy of slavery and its ongoing harm, and come up with proposals for reparations.

H.R. 40 was first introduced more than 30 years ago, but has languished ever since, never gaining traction as systemic racism became ever more entrenched in the United States. But this year, as the deadly Covid-19 virus took a disproportionate toll on communities of color and millions of people took to the streets in the wake of the killing of George Floyd to demand an end to structural racism, H.R. 40 gained unprecedented momentum.

Take Action: #ReparationsNow

Voters made clear that racial justice needs to be a priority for the next Administration. The US Congress now has an opportunity to make history. Justice can’t wait. Tell Congress to pass H.R. 40 now.

TAKE ACTION

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, the bill’s lead sponsor, backed by a coalition of groups including the ACLU, Color of Change, Human Rights Watch, the NAACP, National African American Reparations Commission, and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, mobilized support among legislators. Japanese American internment camp survivors, including former US secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and actor George Takei, voiced their support. The US Conference of Mayors, the Players Coalition, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, and over 290 organizations, faith groups, and small businesses came out in support of it. Recent polling shows that the majority of people in the US support studying the need for reparations. 

To date, 165 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of HR 40, many more than in years prior. Its Senate companion, S. 1083, the first reparations bill to be introduced in the Senate since Reconstruction, has 20 co-sponsors.  

Congress should seize this moment. The House should bring H.R. 40 to the floor, where it would almost certainly pass. Even if the bill gets held up in the Senate in this Congress, passage in the House will help ensure that the next Congress and the administration of President-elect Joe Biden will make it a priority in their first 100 days.

Already, states and local jurisdictions are taking matters into their own hands. The city council in Asheville, North Carolina approved reparations for its African American residents and apologized for its history of slavery. Evanston, Illinois went even further, not only approving reparations, but setting aside tax revenue from newly legalized marijuana sales to pay for them. Burlington, Vermont established a commission to study reparations. The mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, signed an executive order to study slavery and reparations. And the governor of California signed into law in October a bill establishing the state’s own H.R. 40-style commission.

Congress should not remain stagnant on the issue of repair while states and city councils pass their own reparations measures. Lawmakers have until December 10 to act (the House’s final day of voting this session). We can make it happen. Justice Can’t Wait.

Australia: Follow Up Afghan Report with Prosecutions

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Australian SAS search operation in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, in May 2012. Screenshot from ABC News, Four Corners, March 16, 2020.

(Sydney) – The findings of the four-year inquiry into alleged war crimes by Australian forces in Afghanistan highlight the need for prompt, independent criminal investigations leading to appropriate prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said today. The Australian government should provide adequate and swift compensation to the Afghan victims of abuses and their families.

The Australian Defence Force on November 19, 2020, released the inquiry headed by Justice Paul Brereton. The investigation found credible information of 23 incidents of unlawful killing of 39 people “by or at the direction of members of the Special Operations Task Group in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, would be the war crime of murder. None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle, found the inquiry.”

The report also found credible allegations that junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner to achieve the soldier’s first kill, in a practice that was known as “blooding.” Credible allegations into the practice of “throwdowns” were also established, in which soldiers placed weapons, handheld radios, weapon magazines, or grenades with the body of an “enemy killed in action” to portray the person killed as a legitimate target.

“The Australian government was right to promptly release the Brereton report, and the shocking news that the special forces unlawfully killed 39 people will horrify both Australians and Afghans,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Morrison government needs to ensure the Special Investigator’s Office has the resources it needs to act quickly to ensure justice. As time drags on, the prospect of justice for Afghan victims becomes more and more remote.”

On November 12, the Morrison government pre-emptively announced the creation of an Office of the Special Investigator to examine potential criminal matters raised by the Brereton report. The government said the office will be staffed with experienced investigators from the Australian Federal Police, state police experts, and legal counsel, who will gather evidence and refer briefs to the commonwealth director of public prosecutions for consideration.

The government should ensure that the special investigator’s office is independent from both the military and political actors, and that it investigates all those in the chain of command implicated in these abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

The inquiry notes that, “the criminal behaviour described in this report was conceived, committed, continued, and concealed at patrol commander level, and it is overwhelmingly at that level that responsibility resides.” But civilian officials and military commanders can be held criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility if they knew or should have known about violations committed by forces under their control and failed to prevent them or punish those directly responsible.

Similar allegations in the United Kingdom about British special forces implicated in unlawful killings in Afghanistan resulted in the creation of “Operation Northmoor” in 2014, which ran for six years and was closed in 2020 without charging any servicemen. This investigation was not independent of government and was open to political interference.

Successive British governments repeatedly obstructed the process, most blatantly by effectively shutting down Operation Northmoor and the UK’s Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), which was established in 2010. The UK government introduced legislation in parliament this year that would make it nearly impossible to prosecute soldiers for alleged crimes committed outside the United Kingdom more than five years ago.

“Canberra needs to learn lessons from the UK’s failed efforts to prosecute soldiers implicated in war crimes in Iraq and ensure that no government minister has the power to interfere, direct, or prevent investigations and prosecutions,” Pearson said. “The Office of the Special Prosecutor needs to be able to investigate and prosecute Australian military personnel regardless of rank.”

The government has not yet clarified what powers the Office of the Special Investigator will have to get its work done, and the special investigator has not yet been appointed. The government should ensure that the office has clear legal authority to obtain evidence and summon people for questioning and arrest. The office should also be protected against interference in its operations and obstruction of justice, as with other criminal investigations. 

Investigating historic crimes in another country is a difficult, complex, and costly exercise. The special investigator’s office should have adequate resources and staff, including relevant experts, analysts, and translators to ensure that investigations are handled effectively and efficiently. Ministers should ensure the office has the necessary resources, expertise, and time to fully carry out its work.

The creation of a separate independent oversight panel to oversee the Department of Defence response to the Brereton inquiry is critical to ensuring that the Australian Defence Force undertakes the necessary steps to address systemic problems and implement the deep cultural, organizational and leadership changes across the armed forces, to ensure that such abuses do not happen again.

For many Afghan survivors and others harmed by these abuses, the consequences have been devastating. Families who happened to live in districts that had a Taliban presence lost their children, their family’s breadwinner, their homes. Those who sought justice for these crimes were turned away or threatened. The special investigator’s office should ensure that proper protection measures are in place to minimize any risks for potential witnesses to crimes.

The Australian soldiers who came forward to speak out about these incidents challenged a culture of secrecy and silence that has surrounded the Australian Defence Force for many years, Human Rights Watch said. The accounts they provided to the inquiry and media were the first step towards accountability.

The former military lawyer and whistleblower David McBride, who was deployed to Afghanistan with the special operations task group, was charged with a number of offenses in 2017 after he spoke to reporters about the alleged abuses, and his trial is ongoing. He is the only person who was charged, and the charges are unrelated to his conduct in Afghanistan.

“David McBride is a brave whistleblower who drew attention to hideous abuses after his superiors failed to respond to his concerns,” Pearson said. “His whistleblowing has been vindicated by this report and his continued prosecution is a chilling warning to others who may wish to come forward.”