'No comparison' between alleged Australian Defence Force atrocities in Afghanistan and Kiwis' actions in Operation Burnham - Kiwi war journalist Jon Stephenson

A Kiwi journalist who's been a thorn in the side of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) for years is urging the Government to take steps to ensure our soldiers never commit the kinds of atrocities Australian special forces have been accused of.

A four-year investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan has found "credible evidence" 39 prisoners and civilians were unlawfully killed and two treated so cruelly the soldiers' conduct amounted to a war crime. Nineteen soldiers in particular have been referred to the police for further investigation.

"I think there is a great deal of embarrassment and some shame that's been cast as a result of this report," Canberra-based Australian journalist Olivia Leeming told The AM Show on Friday. "Australia considers itself as having great defence capabilities, but as a country of honour, of great moral upstanding, and this threatens to tarnish that."

The report, based on interviews with more than 400 witnesses and 45,000 documents and images, found junior soldiers were forced to kill unarmed prisoners and non-combatants in an initiation ritual called 'blooding', and weapons were planted on the dead to "cover up the crimes".

"Some of the junior soldiers saw these patrol commanders as demigods, they obeyed their every order, that this created a self-centred warrior culture," Leeming said. "[It] fostered this code of silence and people were too reticent to speak out, afraid of being ostracised, bullied, that they might face other retributions." 

Some of the allegations had been reported in Australian media before

Angus Campbell.
Angus Campbell. Photo credit: Getty

Australian Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell said the inquiry found the special forces had "a misplaced focus on prestige, status and power, turning away from the regiment's heritage of military excellence fused with the quiet humility of service".

He called the inquiry's findings a "disgraceful and a profound betrayal" of his force's professional standards, referring dozens of allegations to the office of the special investigator, a new body set up by the government within the Department of Home Affairs.

"The distorted culture was embraced and amplified by some experienced, charismatic and influential non-commissioned officers and their proteges, who sought to fuse military excellence with ego, elitism and entitlement," Gen Campbell said.

"I can only echo the words of the Australian Defence Force chief - General Angus Campbell - that what is being described and what is alleged is disgraceful, and as he put it, a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Force's professional standards and expectations," New Zealand war journalist Jon Stephenson told Newshub on Friday.

Stephenson has followed the NZDF around the world, reporting from on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and in 2015 was paid a confidential sum after taking out a defamation case against it. His book Hit & Run, written with Nicky Hager, alleged the NZDF breached rules of engagement in an SAS-led raid in Afghanistan in 2010 and covered up the resulting civilian deaths. 

An inquiry was launched in 2019, and the findings - released in July this year - concluded while there was no deliberate cover-up, there had been civilian deaths - which the NZDF had previously denied. The raid was lawful, the inquiry found, as insurgents were present - a claim Hit & Run had disputed based on interviews with villagers, but Stephenson later acknowledged was incorrect.  

The inquiry also recommended the establishment of an office of the independent Inspector-General of Defence, like Australia has.

"It's vital in my view that the Government establishes the post of an independent Inspector-General in a way that allows the person that gets the job to fulfill the mandate," Stephenson told Newshub. "It should be well-resourced, the mandate itself should be wide-ranging and of course it's vital that they choose the correct person for the job - and in my view, that needs to be a civilian."

Stephenson said no comparison could be made between what he and Hager alleged Kiwi soldiers did in 2010 and the "horrific" allegations against the Australians. 

"There's no question that the allegations of misconduct and war crimes that the Australian Defence Force is dealing with are in an entirely different league to the question marks around the New Zealand Defence Force and the New Zealand special forces in particular in respect to Operation Burnham. 

"Operation Burnham was dealing with the possibility - which was confirmed - of civilian death and injuries, but there was never any suggestion that New Zealand special forces personnel had deliberately targeted and executed civilians. 

"Here in Australia we've got a report which sets out in graphic detail the allegations of Australian special forces troops deliberately killing people, and people that were in their custody. It's just abhorrent, and I've seen no evidence that New Zealand special forces personnel have done anything of this nature.

"There's a world of difference between events happening in the fog of war - someone makes a decision that turns out to be the wrong decision, but they don't make it deliberately. In other words, it's possible to do something that ends up having tragic consequences, but not to be culpable in a war crime. 

"Civilians unfortunately do die as a part of conflict. That's not desirable, and that's why the rules of law are there - to make sure great care is taken in the application of force." 

While it took a decade for New Zealand officials to get to the bottom of what actually happened in Operation Burnham partly thanks to the NZDF's "major failings" in communication, to quote Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, once Australian military bosses found out about the allegations against their troops, they had no choice but to act, Stephenson said.

"This is not something you could possibly whitewash. When it became clear that these murders and ill-treatment of enemy personnel or civilians had happened, the Australian commanders really had no alternative other than to investigate because it was widely known amongst many in the military, and covering it up would have just implicated them. 

"I think they did do the right thing, but I really don't think that they had any significant choice in the matter. It was going to come out, and it was a matter of urgency that they got ahead of it." 

The police investigations into the allegations against Australia's special forces will likely take years, the Sydney Morning Herald reported

Jon Stephenson.
Jon Stephenson. Photo credit: The AM Show

Stephenson says the callous killings may have a dangerous domino effect on the ability of Australian - and other Western nations' - troops to operate in that part of the world. 

"It fits into a narrative of many terrorist organisations who say that this is symptomatic of the way Western forces behave in places like Afghanistan and Iraq... Once you lose your moral authority, you lose a vital component of your combat effectiveness."

Stephenson said it is vital New Zealand has systems in place - such as as independent Inspector-General - to ensure a similar culture never develops in our defence force. 

"We need to look at our military culture, we need to look at our training, we need to look at our moral leadership, otherwise what happened to the Australians could well happen to us. We're not born any different morally from the Australians". 

New Zealand's Chief of Army Major General John Boswell said no New Zealand soldiers were involved in the alleged incidents.