The former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has called for special forces soldiers responsible for war crimes in Afghanistan – and anyone who tried to conceal them – to be “brought to justice”.
Rudd joined current Australian politicians in expressing outrage after a major report said there was credible information to substantiate the alleged unlawful killing of 39 people in Afghanistan by 25 Australian special forces personnel.
Politicians said they were disturbed and appalled by the allegations, with calls for a national apology and commanders to “fall on their swords”.
Rudd, who was prime minister during Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan, said he was “utterly disgusted by the findings of this report detailing accounts of cold-blooded murder by members of our armed forces”.
He said on Thursday the accounts represented “flagrant violations of our solemn legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions and the laws of armed conflict, as well as a betrayal of the moral and ethical code that Australians expect their military to advance and defend around the world”.
“Those who are responsible for these crimes, and any efforts to conceal them, must be brought to justice,” Rudd said in a statement. “Behind every unlawful killing is a family grieving for someone they love. The families of those victims must be compensated for their unjust loss.”
Rudd said it beggared belief that following atrocities during the Iraq war at the Abu Ghraib prison such crimes could be repeated “and worse by Australian forces in Afghanistan”.
Other former prime ministers during the period of the Afghanistan conflict, John Howard, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull, declined to comment. Tony Abbott is yet to respond.
The current prime minister, Scott Morrison, was expected to speak later on Thursday afternoon but his government vowed to closely monitor the Australian defence force to ensure it implemented sweeping changes.
The findings prompted some parliamentarians to demand more decisive action, including a call to cease the prosecution of David McBride, the whistleblower linked to leaks of Afghan war logs to the national broadcaster the ABC.
The chief of the ADF, Gen Angus Campbell, said he was “deeply appreciative of people who came forward to speak with concern at what they had seen” but declined to comment about the McBride prosecution because of the ongoing court process.
The independent South Australian senator Rex Patrick called on the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to reconsider the action against McBride. If it was not dropped, he added, the attorney general, Christian Porter, should order “the discontinuance of the prosecution”.
“Persecution of whistleblowers is not in the public interest,” Patrick said in a statement.
The senator said Thursday’s report by Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton told “a very disturbing and deeply shameful story” and it was “a very grim day for the standing of the ADF”.
“As a former member of the Australian defence force I am absolutely appalled by the revelations,” Patrick said. “Our troops unlawfully killed the very people they were sent to Afghanistan to help protect.”
Patrick called on the Australian parliament to support a national apology to the people of Afghanistan. He said unit and taskforce commanders, past and present, should “accept moral responsibility for their grave failures of command” and “fall on their swords”.
The defence minister, Linda Reynolds, said the report outlined “a range of very serious matters that the chief of the defence force must now comprehensively respond to”. Reynolds said accountability would be “crucial to maintaining the highest standards Australians expect of our military, reassuring confidence and trust, and learning from grave failings”.
She pointed to the oversight panel she established last week, saying it would report directly and regularly to her. The government has also announced an office of the special investigator to build briefs of evidence for potential prosecution.
“The findings announced … today should not cast a shadow on the vast majority whose contributions to the mission in Afghanistan were carried out to the highest standards demanded of them,” Reynolds said.
This was a view echoed by Darren Chester, the minister for veterans’ affairs and defence personnel. Chester said the past 20 years had seen “one of the highest operational tempos in our military history” with more than 39,000 Australians deployed to Afghanistan.
“For the overwhelming majority their service was in keeping with the values we expect as a nation, and the high standards they demand of each other,” he said. Chester said support was available to veterans, ADF members and their families, including counselling, legal, psychological, medical, pastoral and social work support.
Labor’s defence spokesman, Richard Marles, said his thoughts were with the victims and with the majority of ADF members who had provided distinguished service.
“These are appalling allegations. These happened by people wearing our nation’s uniform. In the name of our country. That is profoundly difficult to accept,” Marles said. “It is profoundly difficult to accept, knowing as I do, the incredible service that has been provided by thousands, tens of thousands of Australians in our defence forces and in Afghanistan.”
The Greens senator Jordon Steele-John called for compensation for the families and communities affected “by these disgusting crimes”. Steele-John said the conduct outlined in the Brereton report, even in the redacted form, was “horrendous and shameful”.
“Innocent people, including children, are dead, families have been torn apart and villages have been left in ruin,” he said.