Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Summary trials and transparency: a case in New Zealand

This editorial in the New Zealand Herald raises questions about insufficient transparency in the conduct of a summary trial of an officer of the New Zealand Defence Force:
Investigations by this newspaper resulted in the Defence Force revealing that a soldier had been charged with planting explosive devices, which contravened the Geneva Convention. That aspect raised obvious concerns about the potential harm to the Army's reputation.
Despite repeated requests for updates on the investigation, the Herald on Sunday was not informed of the summary trial which took place this week. The officer was let off the charges due to a lack of evidence.
A subsequent terse press statement confirmed only the hearing of a charge under the Armed Forces Discipline Act that the officer had negligently failed to ensure targets would be visually identified when ordering the placement of a booby trap. The charge had been dismissed because of a lack of evidence, and the officer had been granted permanent name suppression.
"No further comment will be made in relation to this trial," the statement added. The second officer facing charges relating to the booby trapping is yet to learn whether he will face a court martial next month. This is obviously a matter of considerable significance to the Defence Force.
The charges invite scrutiny here and abroad of its attitude to the international rules of war. There are clear implications for the reputation of this country. We believe our soldiers fight fiercely but fairly. When there is reason to question that view, the public has the right to know, in detail, what the officers did and whether this was common practice. Yet the Defence's Force's antediluvian response means people have no idea what evidence was offered and why it was deemed insufficient.
This penchant for secrecy is par for the course when the force risks being embarrassed. It has reserved for itself the right to bury inconvenient truths.

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