From the chair
Prime Minister Bill English’s decision not to order an independent inquiry into Operation Burnham in Afghanistan demonstrates a serious lack of leadership and a fundamental misunderstanding of the Prime Minister’s role in a democracy. The basis for his decision, he said, is a letter from the Defence Chief to the Defence Minister and his own viewing of some video footage of the operation selected by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF). Yet there was a great deal more information that could and should have influenced his decision.
For several years the NZDF misled the government and the public about civilian casualties. Did this not raise in the Prime Minister’s mind the tiniest concern that he was not being told everything? Not to labour the point, but for nearly six years the NZDF position was that allegations about civilian casualties were “unfounded”. Actually, what the NZDF really said was that NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and Afghan ministries concluded that allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded. The NZDF said it stood by that statement even though it was untrue and the NZDF knew it was untrue.
Forced to respond to an Official Information Act request by the Human Rights Foundation lodged in October 2016 it finally, shortly before Hit and Run was published, acknowledged “a” civilian death in the raid. Just one. Then, questioned by the media at the NZDF’s own media conference, finally the Defence Chief acknowledged that there may indeed have been several civilian deaths in the raid – caused, the NZDF said, by a malfunctioning support helicopter support gun.
That conference was called following the publication of Hit and Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, a book that makes that six civilians were killed and 15 wounded in a Special Air Service (SAS) operation in Afghanistan. If the conduct of the SAS during the raid was indeed “exemplary” as the Defence Chief claimed several times during the conference, why had these civilian deaths covered up? This alone should raise questions in the Prime Minister’s mind about whether he was being told the truth or the whole truth.
It didn’t however need the book Hit and Run to open the Prime Minister’s eyes. At the time when the New York Times reported “New Case of Civilian Deaths Investigated in Afghanistan” in relation to Operation Burnham then Minister of Defence Wayne Mapp called the raid a “fiasco” and confirmed this in contemporary comments.
A leader’s role is to decide independently whether there is a need for an inquiry – without just accepting the word of the NZDF, particularly when there are so many indicators that the NZDF version is self-serving and inconsistent with information in the public domain. Yet the PM accepted without question explanations provided by the military, saying the military didn’t see the need for an inquiry.
This is misconceived on two fronts. First, it is not for the head of the agency under scrutiny to decide what is in the public interest. The Police Commissioner did not decide there was a need for a judge-led Commission of Inquiry following Louise Nicholas’ claims about the way her rape complaint was handled by the police; the Head of National Women’s Hospital did not establish the Cartwright Inquiry into the “unfortunate experiment”. Both those inquiries were established by the government, doubtless in the face of opposition from the agencies concerned. Second, the PM failed in his democratic duty to scrutinise the conduct of his officials. He has a duty, owed to all of us, to ensure that officials uphold the standards in human rights and humanitarian law that New Zealand has signed up to.
Finally, the Prime Minister’s decision effectively treats the victims, the Afghani villagers, as non-existent and irrelevant to the decision-making, despite strong representations from their New Zealand legal representatives. They deserve better from a democratic leader.