Why does Australia need a dedicated war crimes investigation unit?

Above Photo – Graham with US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, in June 1994. Secretary Christopher was a strong supporter of the investigation of war crimes

Experience has shown that Australia’s national police force – the Australian Federal Police (AFP) – is incapable of completing war crimes investigations to the point where a prosecution can be launched against persons living in Australia, whether they are Australian citizens or not, for their alleged involvement in war crimes.

1994 - Graham Blewitt at his desk in the ICTY Office of the Prosecutor
1994 – Graham Blewitt at his desk in the ICTY Office of the Prosecutor

In the late 1980s the Australian government established a dedicated war crimes unit – the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) – to investigate allegations that Nazi collaborators, who were involved in the commission of war crimes, had migrated to Australia at the end of the Second World War. Before it was disbanded in early 1994, the SIU had investigated over 800 separate allegations of war crimes, had indicted three individuals, but was prevented for political reasons from charging a fourth, a man named Karlos Ozols, for his involvement in genocide. The government of the day declared that the AFP could complete the investigation. The SIU delivered all relevant materials to, and briefed, the AFP, however, the case languished and did not proceed to an indictment.

Despite numerous assertions that the AFP has the responsibility and ability to investigate and charge war criminals living in Australia, not one case has ever led to an indictment – not one!

On 14 June 2023 the AFP announced it was abandoning its investigation of Ben Roberts-Smith, who earlier in the month had been declared a war criminal when he lost his defamation case against investigative journalists Christ Masters and Nick McKenzie as well as a number of media organisations. Time will tell if the Office of the Special Investigator (OSI) established as a result of the Brereton Report in 2020 is able to fill the void.

It cannot be argued that war crimes investigations are extremely difficult.

They require dedicated experts with experience in investigating and prosecuting such cases. When a successful war crimes unit gains the experience and know how to conduct such investigations, having established contacts with international counterparts – an essential component of any war crimes investigation – it is complete folly to allow such experience to be scattered to the four winds when the unit is disbanded.

The experience of the SIU and the lessons learned by the plethora of ad hoc international criminal tribunals created since 1993, as well as the creation of the permanent International Criminal Court, clearly demonstrates that dedicated war crimes units will succeed, whereas relying on local police forces to undertake such complex and lengthy investigations, is doomed to failure.

There is no end to the ever increasing number of allegations being made that war criminals form many theatres of conflict are living in Australia. This reality will not abate in our lifetime.

The answer is for the Australian government to establish a permanent and dedicated war crimes unit and to provide the political will and funding to allow such unit to investigate all allegations of war criminals living in this country.

Recently the Australian Centre for International Justice (ACIJ) issued a “Policy Paper: Challenging Impunity: Why Australia Needs a Permanent, Specialised International Crimes Unit”.

Policy Paper: Challenging Impunity: Why Australia Needs a Permanent, Specialised International Crimes Unit

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