Stripping soldiers of an award for crimes allegedly committed by their colleagues would violate Australian principles, the Veterans Affairs Minister says.
The comments come after the ADF chief walked back plans to strip up to 3000 soldiers of a collective citation in the wake of the horrifying Afghan war crimes report.
A meritorious unit citation awarded to the Special Operations Task Group had been set to be revoked over the report, which found evidence of 39 murders of Afghan civilians committed by Australia’s elite special forces.
On its release, ADF chief Angus Campbell said a citation for the unit as a whole was no longer sustainable given the number of allegations levelled.
He confirmed he would recommend to the Governor-General that the award be revoked.
But in a statement that mirrored comments from the Prime Minister on Monday, General Campbell confirmed no decision had yet been made.
Veterans Affairs Minister Darren Chester told Sky News that while he did not want to place pressure on General Campbell, he was uncomfortable with the idea of innocent soldiers being punished for the alleged actions of their colleagues.
“What good would come from taking away that citation from innocent people?” he said.
“I don’t pretend that it’s an easy issue for anyone to resolve, but it does trouble me that we would somehow take away an award from people who have done nothing wrong.
“You’re talking about a unit citation given to a large number of people who served in that unit, but there’s been a small number of people alleged to have done the wrong thing.
“I fully support a basic principle here that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you shouldn’t be punished. If you done the wrong thing you can expect to be held to account. The Australian Defence Force initiated this inquiry for that very reason.”
But Mr Chester would not confirm whether the government would intervene should General Campbell push ahead with his recommendation to revoke the award.
Around 3000 soldiers who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013, including some who were killed in the line of duty, would be affected by the decision.
Bowing to pressure from advocates and ADF family members, who argue stripping the awards would unfairly tarnish the reputations of those who served with distinction, General Campbell said there was a process to work through.
“Any further action in response to the Inspector-General’s recommendations will be considered as part of the implementation plan, which is being developed with the oversight of the Minister for Defence and the independent Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel,” he said.
“Transparency is key to this process and I intend to speak publicly again once the initial implementation plan is developed and first considered by Defence leadership and presented to government for consideration and input.”
Labor has also supported the reversal, with frontbencher Bill Shorten claiming common sense has prevailed.
“I’ve had the chance to get to know some of the families of veterans and special forces who were killed in Afghanistan,” he told Today.
“I can only imagine how upset they were that their sons who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice …(that) the meritorious badge unit badge was going to be taken off them.
“Angus Campbell, who is very respected senior leader in defence, has pulled the right rein here.”