Foreign Affairs

Is NZ selling civilians short in our military conflicts?

With an inquiry into claims of a military cover-up over deaths in Afghanistan set to wrap up within months, a new report argues New Zealand needs to better track, and prevent, civilian harm in conflicts.

New Zealand’s military leaders have often touted our forces as leading the world - but do we lag behind when it comes to tracking the accidental harm they may cause?

The issue of civilian casualties in war was pushed to the front of Kiwis’ minds by Hit and Run, the 2017 book by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson which alleged 21 civilians were killed or injured in a 2010 Afghanistan raid by the SAS.

In April 2018, the Government announced it would hold an inquiry into the book’s claims, with former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer and former Supreme Court judge Sir Terence Arnold tasked with uncovering what actually happened during Operation Burnham.

The pair will report back to the Government before the end of the year. However, the inquiry has hit obstacles, with the Afghan villagers at the centre of the inquiry withdrawing their cooperation citing a loss of faith in the process.

Now, foreign policy think tank New Zealand Alternative has sought to shape the inquiry’s recommendations with a new briefing paper calling for the creation of a team within the NZDF dedicated to preventing civilian harm.

"The NZDF is less effective as a tactical force if it cannot win the hearts and minds of local civilian populations, credibly respond to disinformation efforts by opponents, or remain up to date with the defence practices of our security partners.”

The paper calls on New Zealand to follow in the footsteps of the United States and the NATO-led ISAF coalition in Afghanistan, which both set up civilian casualty tracking units to monitor their forces’ actions.

A “civilian harm prevention team” with civilian oversight but within Headquarters Joint Forces New Zealand, responsible for NZDF operations around the world, would be able to better gather allegations of civilian casualties, pursue credible claims, and provide advice to military leadership on how to prevent or mitigate civilian casualties, the briefing paper argues.

“Moreover, these recommendations support the NZDF’s own strategic interests. The NZDF is less effective as a tactical force if it cannot win the hearts and minds of local civilian populations, credibly respond to disinformation efforts by opponents, or remain up to date with the defence practices of our security partners.”

The other recommendation in the report is for the Attorney-General to create standard operating procedures to govern investigations into claims of civilian harm which have not been adequately addressed.

Self-reflection needed

New Zealand Alternative co-founder and Massey University lecturer Thomas Nash told Newsroom the group hoped its recommendations would be taken into account as the Operation Burnham inquiry prepared its report for the Government.

While the injury or death of civilians was “really a nightmare scenario” for those who served in the armed forces, Nash said New Zealand needed to go beyond compliance with basic international humanitarian law and align itself with the procedures of the world’s most sophisticated armed forces.

“I think the strongest institutions are those willing to be self-reflective and open to criticism - what I see is an institution that’s not really willing to be self-reflective.”

The Operation Burnham furore showed that the NZDF could not offload its obligations to military partners, he said.

“If you thought that relying on the ISAF casualty recording and civilian harm prevention mechanism was sufficient, we wouldn’t have had years of procedure to essentially prevent the information around the civilian harm during Operation Burnham from coming to light, so clearly it’s not enough.”

While some would question whether New Zealand was active enough in military conflicts to justify a dedicated monitoring team, Nash said if the country was to go into combat situations it should treat the issue as an obligation.

Attorney-General David Parker - who is overseeing the Operation Burnham inquiry - declined to comment on the report and its recommendations, while a NZDF spokeswoman said the organisation could not respond to Newsroom’s questions in time for publication.

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