When French president Emmanuel Macron was pilloried in some quarters for defending freedom of expression as a French value, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison backed his European counterpart: “We share values. We stand for the same things.” This professed French/Australian value for freedom of expression has now come back to bite the backside of the Australian prime minister.
When it comes to publication of inflammatory western depictions of the prophet Mohammed that raise the ire of many Muslims worldwide, many western voices will step forth to defend freedom of expression. However, this fidelity to the freedom of expression will often change when what is being expressed casts the West in a negative light; a case in point being an image of an Australian soldier slitting a Muslim child’s throat.
A sociologist, Samantha Crompvoets, spent months interviewing Special Forces soldiers about alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. Among the insouciant acts noted were soldiers tallying their kills on wall boards — kills that included civilians and prisoners.
60 Minutes described the killers as a “rogue band” of special forces soldiers. One especially “disturbing allegation” described how Australian Special Forces soldiers mercilessly slit the throats of 14-year-old boys, bagged their bodies, and tossed them in a river.
A Guardian exclusive exposed depravity with a photo of an Australian soldier drinking beer from a Taliban fighter’s prosthetic leg.
The findings by Crompvoets and the 60 Minutes report were corroborated by the Australian government’s redacted Brereton Report of “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history”:
… 39 unlawful killings by or involving ADF members. The Report also discloses separate allegations that ADF members cruelly treated persons under their control. None of these alleged crimes was committed during the heat of battle. The alleged victims were non-combatants or no longer combatants.
What particularly stuck in the craw of political Australia was a tweet by a Chinese official, Zhao Lijian, of a gruesome throat-slitting image.
Australian prime minister Morrison was apoplectic, calling the post “repugnant,” “deeply offensive to every Australian, every Australian who has served in that uniform,” “utterly outrageous,” and unjustifiable noting that it was a “false image.” Morrison demanded an apology from the Chinese government, the firing of Zhao Lijian, and for Twitter to remove the post.
“It is utterly outrageous and cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever, the Chinese Government should be totally ashamed of this post,” Morrison said.
First, calling the image false is deflection because anyone who gives more than a cursory glance to the image will right away realize that it is has been photo-shopped and does not purport in any way to be an untouched photograph.
Second, the Australian prime minister obviously has backward moral priorities. I submit that what should be deeply offensive to Morrison and every human being being — not just Australians — and especially offensive for every Australian who has served in the Australian military are the egregious war crimes committed by those wearing the same uniform. The starting and focal point for condemnation must be the war crimes. Logically, if the spate of gruesome war crimes had not been committed by Australians in uniform, then outcry at the crimes would not have been filliped.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying did address the outrage by Morrison in a TV address.
“These cruel crimes have been condemned by the international community,” said Hua.
“The Australian government should do some soul searching and bring the culprits to justice, and offer an official apology to the Afghan people and make the solemn pledge that they will never repeat such crimes. Earlier, they said the Chinese government should feel ashamed but it is Australian soldiers who committed such cruel crimes.”
“Shouldn’t the Australian government feel ashamed? Shouldn’t they feel ashamed for their soldiers killing innocent Afghan civilians?”
According to Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani, Morrison did express — not a full-fledged apology — but “his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops.” Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne also wrote to her Afghan counterpart to extend “apologies for the misconduct identified by the inquiry, by some Australian military personnel in Afghanistan.” The wording would seem to diminish the atrocities as “misconduct.” There is also a overarching emphasis that the crimes were committed by some troops, seeking to exculpate the bulk of the troops from bad apples among them.
It would seem Australia is trying to distract from its horrendous war crimes. Colloquially put, Australia’s political honcho is trying to cover the military’s bare ass.
World Socialist Web Site was scathing in denouncing the Australian Establishment’s response,
The tweet by a mid-ranking Chinese official, condemning Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, has been met with hysterical denunciations by the entire political and media establishment. The response can only be described as a staggering exercise in hypocrisy, confected outrage and an attempt to whip-up a wartime nationalist frenzy.
The illustration is based on an investigative report by the Australian Department of Defense, Hua pointed out, noting that “although it is a painting, it reflects the facts.”
Hua pointed to Morrison’s real purpose: to divert attention and shift pressure from Australian war crimes to criticism of China.
Australia Liberal MP Andrew Hastie preferred that the war crimes had been kept buried. Hastie (who as a captain in the Special Air Services was cleared of wrongdoing in an investigation into soldiers under his command who chopped the hands off dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan) criticized the Australian Defence Force for releasing allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan, saying it has allowed China to malign Australian troops.
Bipartisan support was forthcoming for Australian government indignation as Labor leader Anthony Albanese also criticized the image and shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong called it “gratuitous” and “inflammatory.”
Prosecuting Western War Crimes
At the end of World War II war crimes tribunals were set up. In Europe there was the Nuremberg Tribunal and in Asia the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. It was victor’s justice and no Allies were tried. This although the United States and, to a lesser degree France, engaged in a deliberate policy of starving German prisoners of war (who the US re-designated as disarmed enemy forces to evade the Geneva Conventions on POWs, as president George W Bush would later similarly do in Afghanistan when he refused to recognize POWs, labeling them instead as unlawful enemy combatants) and civilians. Germans stated that over 1,700,000 soldiers alive at the end of the war never returned home. 
In the Far East, there were no allies prosecuted at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. It must be noted that just as Nazi scientists were brought back to work at the behest of the US, class A Japanese war criminals were also protected by the US from prosecution. 
Australia is not alone in the commission of war crimes. Canadian Airborne Regiment troops tied and blind-folded 16-year-old Shidane Arone, beat him with a metal bar, and burned with cigarellos for hours (he was later found to have burns on his penis), and took “trophy pics.” Arone was dead the following morning. The Canadian Airborne Regiment would be disbanded. US war crimes are numerous. They include My Lai in Viet Nam, Bagram in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, etc.
Western war criminals are seldom punished, or when punished, then not in a meaningful way proportionate to the crimes committed. In fact, if you expose the war crimes perpetrated by a western allied country, then you risk becoming targeted for imprisonment. Such is the situation that Julian Assange finds himself in today. Although an Australian citizen, Morrison has been unsympathetic to the WikiLeaks founder and publisher who exposed egregious US war crimes. Said Morrison, “Mr Assange will get the same support that any other Australian would … he’s not going to be given any special treatment.”
This is what adherence to the tenet of freedom of expression genuinely signifies in much of the western world. In other words, freedom of expression is good for the western goose but bad when it is for the Muslim gander.
For further background view the damning allegations of serious war crimes, including the execution of innocent civilians and detainees.
- Read James Bacque, Other Losses (1991).
- Yang Yanjun, Japan’s Biological Warfare in China (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2016). See also “Japan’s Legacy of War Crimes in China.”