Monday, February 13, 2023

NZDF's bill for covering up war crimes

One of the key recommendations of the Operation Burnham inquiry was the creation of an independent Inspector-General of Defence to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by NZDF. The government's bill to do this is currently before select committee, and the Sunday Star Times' Andrea Vance has been looking at some of the submissions on it. So far, they're pretty damning, concluding that the bill will enable the military to keep its war-crimes secret:

A new military watchdog – created after the deadly Operation Burnham raid – is a recipe for “whitewash and brushing things under the carpet” and will make it more difficult to hold the Defence Force accountable, experts say.

They fear the small print in proposed legislation establishing the Inspector-General of Defence could see future human rights violations by soldiers kept secret – and make illegal the kind of investigative journalism that exposed the cover-up.

Defence Minister Andrew Little excuses all this on the grounds that the military can only suppress information which is "sensitive". But the definition of "sensitive" includes "prejudice to the continued performance of the functions of the Defence Force or the Ministry" - an entirely separate ground from prejudice to the security and defence of New Zealand - and NZDF in the past has made it clear that it considers reporting on or investigating its crimes to prejudice its functions. So I'd say that these fears are entirely well-grounded. But when you look at the limits on what the IGD can investigate and the emphasis on preventing "duplication of scrutiny" - that is, on stopping it from looking into anything NZDF is covering up itself with a stovepiped internal "inquiry" - then it is clear that this bill is designed to give only the appearance of oversight, and in reality is designed to allow NZDF to cover up its crimes. That's not what was recommended, and it certainly isn't what the public wants. And with major civil society groups condemning the bill (not to mention Nicky Hager, whose reporting with Jon Stephenson sparked the whole Operation Burnham inquiry), if it is not significantly amended it is simply going to lack any public credibility.