‘Disastrous mismanagement’: Former human rights commissioner says Australia ignored pleas from Afghan body

Former human rights commissioner Chris Sidoti has accused the Australian government of ignoring pleas from Afghanistan’s key human rights body to offer protection to some of its members, lashing Australia’s handling of the withdrawal from the country as “disastrous mismanagement”.

The Australian government has so far granted 17 visas to members of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), which assisted the Brereton war crimes inquiry and had been helping the Office of the Special Investigator in its investigations into Australian soldiers up until the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.

Australian officials work with members of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment ready combat team to process evacuees at Hamid Karzai International Airport.Credit:ADF

But Mr Sidoti says the AIHRC chairperson sent the Australian government a list of 90 staff members considered to be at grave risk from the Taliban because of their work investigating atrocities, especially relating to women and children, before the fall of Kabul.

“She asked for asylum for people on the list and their families, as many as we could take. She got no response,” he wrote in an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“Australia’s evacuation flights out of Kabul ended on Thursday 26 August. The list was still being considered, presumably by the Department of Home Affairs. The following day full details on 10 staff on the list and their families were sent to Foreign Affairs. They are still being considered.”

Chris Sidoti visits Kabul with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in November 2019.

Mr Sidoti, the Australian Human Rights Commissioner from 1995 to 2000, has worked with the AIHRC since its founding in 2002.

The Australian government has been criticised by military experts and former soldiers who served in Afghanistan for its relatively slow response processing the applications of Afghan interpreters and other locally engaged workers who say they will be targeted by the Taliban for helping foreign forces. But in nine days and without an embassy on the ground, Australia managed to evacuate more than 4100 people following the fall of Kabul, ending its rescue operations hours before a terror attack killed 13 American soldiers and some 169 Afghan civilians.

Mr Sidoti said the Morrison government’s “disastrous mismanagement” of the defeat in Afghanistan brings “deep dishonour on us all”. “It will cost lives, perhaps thousands of lives”.

He called for a judicial inquiry into “what went wrong”, including the decision to close the embassy in Kabul in late May. The Australian government decided to close the embassy after receiving an intelligence assessment from Defence officials that found that the security situation in Kabul could deteriorate quickly.

“What did we know then? Why were we not better prepared? Why has our response been so pathetic?” Mr Sidoti wrote.

“I know this government has no sense of accountability and will never appoint a judicial inquiry into this disgrace. So the Senate must act. The very least we deserve is a Senate inquiry into the government’s dismal failures of the past three months.”

The human rights lawyer said even if allegations of murder against special forces are correct, they would be “insignificant compared with the grievous damage the Morrison government has caused to people in Afghanistan and indeed to Australia’s reputation and its strategic interests in the region”.

A spokesperson for Home Affairs said it does not comment on individual cases but it would continue to prioritise Afghans under the humanitarian visa program and provide humanitarian support to Afghanistan, with a particular focus on supporting women and girls.

“Australia joins other nations in calling on the Taliban to uphold its undertakings to allow international citizens and visa holders to depart in a safe and orderly manner,” the spokesperson said.

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