Newly appointed Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton has overturned a decision to strip 3,000 soldiers of their citations after their service in Afghanistan.
Last year, Chief of Defence Angus Campbell recommended the Meritorious Unit Citation be revoked for the Special Operations Task Group as a “collective punishment” after the release of a report that revealed evidence of war crimes committed by Australian personnel.
However, Dutton said that only those convicted of war crimes would lose their medals.
“We shouldn’t be punishing the 99 percent for the sins of one percent,” Dutton told 2GB radio.
“This says to people very clearly before Anzac Day that we want to reset, that we want to provide support to those people who have served our country and who have died in that service,” he said.
The minister noted that around 40,000 Australians served in Afghanistan, with many losing “mates and family.” Anzac Day should be used to properly commemorate their contributions, he said.
Australia and New Zealand observe Anzac Day on April 25 to commemorate military personnel who have served in war and conflict.
The announcement by Dutton comes after the Brereton Inquiry in November found evidence up to 25 Australian soldiers while serving in Afghanistan were involved in the alleged murders of at least 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners. The Inquiry recommended formal charges be laid against 19 defence personnel.
“We’ve now set up an office of a special investigator, and those individuals will be investigated by that office, and they can look at those individual matters,” Dutton said.
General Campbell’s recommendation to strip the citations received backlash from the public and Prime Minister Scott Morrison just hours after it was released.
Meanwhile, Dutton was also critical of restrictions around Anzac Day events.
“I don’t understand why you can have 30,000 people at a footy game, but you can’t have that same number at an Anzac Day service,” he said. But he did implore Australians to comply with registration measures.
“I do want to see good numbers, and I do want to see people register.”
While Anzac Day events were cancelled last year with the onset of COVID-19, this year, the marches have been subject to strict contract tracing and registration rules.
In Melbourne, only 900 veterans have registered out of a capacity of 5,500. Simultaneously, only 600 individuals and 120 associations have registered for the 10,000-capacity event in Sydney.
Vietnam War Veteran John Haward said a portion of veterans might be holding back their registration to protest the regulations, while RSL Victoria’s CEO Jamie Twidale suggested the issue was more nuanced.
“It’s a bit of a combination,” he told 3AW radio.
“There’s potentially a small element of a bit of a protest saying, ‘Well, if I have to register for contact tracing, I just won’t register at all,’” he said.
“There is also a group that think while there’s limited spots, ‘Let someone else have my spot—I’ll go commemorate somewhere else.’”
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