Jacinda Ardern recognises 'major failings' in Defence Force over Operation Burnham findings

The Prime Minister has recognised "major failings" in the Defence Force over an inquiry into a 2010 operation in Afghanistan that has revealed findings described by Amnesty International as "disturbing". 

Attorney-General David Parker on Friday released the findings of the Government inquiry into Operation Burnham and related events in Afghanistan in 2010, which inspired the book Hit & Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson. 

It shows Special Air Service (SAS) personnel assaulted a prisoner and that the operation likely caused the death of a young girl and injured a number of civilians. The inquiry also shows the Defence Force passed a prisoner on who was then tortured. 

The inquiry also found the Defence Force gave inaccurate information to Government ministers at the time, as well as the public, over a number of years about the allegations of civilian casualties.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Government will act on the findings.  

"Obviously there are findings here which we will be making sure that we follow up on to give that extra layer of confidence in our Defence Force. That's what we'll now do," she told reporters on Friday in Auckland. 

"I think the recommendations that have been made here will only strengthen some of the practices and some of the lines of communication between Government and the Defence Force and give that extra confidence."

The inquiry, led by former Supreme Court judge Sir Terence Arnold and former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, has made four recommendations including having an independent inspector to oversee the Defence Force. 

"That is something that we are taking very seriously and that we think will add that extra layer of confidence both for the Government and for New Zealanders," Ardern said. 

"I anticipate that we'll be taking them forth as quickly as we can, and of course if we see ourselves re-elected, we will be proceeding with them. I think it will only add to our 

system and certainly failings have been identified that must be addressed."

The Prime Minister does not think the findings call into question her briefings with the Defence Force - but she said it's important to make improvements. 

"It certainly identified major failings in some of the communication between the Defence Force and at times within Government as well. Many of those who were involved have since retired but there are significant lessons to be learnt here."

Air Marshal Kevin Short has apologised on behalf of the Defence Force.
Air Marshal Kevin Short has apologised on behalf of the Defence Force. Photo credit: Newshub

Air Marshal Kevin Short has apologised on behalf of the Defence Force for the failings.

"This inquiry report demonstrates that we let our frontline service people down through a series of organisational and administrative failings that saw incorrect information provided to ministers and the New Zealand public. And for that, I am deeply sorry."

Ardern said Hager and Stephenson deserve acknowledgement for raising the allegations against the Defence Force in their book. Their claim that a child was likely killed was correct - although, the inquiry says it was a different child. 

"I do think it was right that we pick up and carry out this further investigation into some of the accusations that were laid and I think we will have a stronger system as a result of that," Ardern said. "It is true to say that they started that process."

'Disturbing' findings

Amnesty International New Zealand executive director Meg de Ronde said the findings of the investigation are "disturbing" and raise questions about the integrity of the Defence Force. 

"It's excellent the inquiry occurred but it took an overwhelming amount of pressure from civil society for it to happen in the first place. The findings show how crucial civil society is," she said. 

"We want to see people taking responsibility for their actions, and we want to see them held accountable. The blatant disregard of due process, the lack of transparency, and lack of accountability here is unacceptable."

The findings show at least seven men were killed in the operation and six were injured. It also found that civilian casualties were possible after several buildings were hit by fire from a helicopter weapon. 

The inquiry found that while there was no organised strategy to cover up civilian casualties, between 2010 and 2017 the Defence Force made misleading statements in briefings to the Government that allegations of civilian casualties were baseless. 

From September 2011 former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp failed to correct the public record and continued the false narrative that there was no evidence of civilian casualties even though he had been briefed that there was. 

Defence Minister Ron Mark said he aims to oversee and drive the Government response. 

"This work is critically important and urgent, to maintain public confidence in the Defence Force, and to ensure that lessons are applied, and that the relevant structures and institutions are fit for purpose."