Helping Friends or Helping Ourselves?


This is the second article in a three part series about the expansion of the AFP’s International Deployment Group (IDG). To read the first installment click here.

‘There is nothing off the shelf that says "this is what an [International Deployment Group] looks like"’, says Commander Mark Walters, Manager of the Australian Federal Police’s IDG. ‘There is no one anywhere doing what we are doing, and to the extent that we are doing it, so we are right out there in front.’

The expansion of the International Deployment Group will see the AFP operating significantly outside its original mandate in areas that would seem to be a more natural fit for the military, NGOs or aid agencies and is attracting considerable global attention as the first of its kind.


As Australia prepares to pour millions of dollars into offshore police operations, the question needs to be asked: Who is scrutinising this shift? When the AFP can get off scot-free for a bungling as serious as the Mohammed Haneef case, Australians should rightfully be concerned about the accountability of our federal police force.

‘The AFP has grown like topsy in recent years,’ says retired diplomat and avid AFP-watcher Bruce Haigh. ‘It’s evolved to its current structure without much thought and is operating to no real plan other than to meet the needs of John Howard’s agenda on terrorism.’

‘Nominally the AFP answers to the Justice Minister, but because of the War on Terror, it now for all intents and purposes answers to Howard, through the National Security Committee of Cabinet,’ says Haigh.

There is no doubt that the AFP has become Howard’s tool of choice in the War on Terror, and Australia’s forays into the Pacific can be viewed in the context of forward deployment in the fight against terrorism – but there’s also much more to the story.

Australia will soon be keeping a much closer eye on its neighbours. By June next year we’ll be in charge of a readily deployable police and paramilitary force – capable of everything from rapid responses in so-called failed States to the training and reconstruction of Pacific Island law and justice sectors. But are we really ‘helping friends,’ or merely helping ourselves?

‘One could be skeptical about some of the objectives behind capacity building because it’s really teaching police in these other countries to do things the way we want them to,’ says Andrew Goldsmith, co-author of Policing the Neighbourhood. ‘Criminal investigations and anti-corruption are the two things [that Australia is interested in influencing]. So there is self interest, there’s no question.’

‘There are [also]new players in the Pacific in which Australia might have a strategic interest,’ says Goldsmith. ‘There are big geopolitical games here.’

Goldsmith says the rapid expansion of the IDG has placed stress on key AFP staff members, who have done ‘a very difficult job in a very short time without a whole lot of guidance and with a whole lot of expectations being thrust upon them.’

‘To a large extent we are in the dark, and that increases the likelihood of getting it wrong.’

Recent AFP interventions in the region have involved close collaboration with the Australian Defence Force, but the AFP is now expanding its own logistic capabilities – including acquiring armed personnel carriers – so that it will be able to deploy to regional hot spots independently of the ADF.

Associate Professor Jude McCulloch, author of Blue Army: Paramilitary Policing in Australia, says the War on Terror has seen the line between police and military become much less distinct ‘and the international deployments are part of that because they are done largely under the banner of national security.’

‘The sections of the police that are paramilitary are expanding,’ says McCulloch. ‘These paramilitary units train with the military, include former members of the military, use a wide range of military weapons and equipment, and use extremely high levels of force. In short, the units straddle the line between the [ADF and the AFP].’

‘Unlike the military, police are operationally independent from the Government,’ she says. ‘They get their funding from the Government, the Government can decide on policy, but in their day to day operations they are independent – and that’s so that nobody is above the law.’

As such, in a paramilitary unit, ‘Police command, rather than an elected Government, decide where and when this œmilitary  force will be used.’

Claims made by a serving AFP officer in a recent Senate Inquiry into Australia’s role in peacekeeping have highlighted the lack of oversight of the AFP’s activities, and left some serious allegations about the Force’s conduct overseas unresolved.

The claims were made in a submission by World Vision to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

World Vision’s Melanie Gow described meeting with a ‘highly respected AFP officer who was a team leader in one of Australia’s most elite policing units.’ The source claimed that an IDG team leader had instructed police serving in the Solomon Islands that a person’s neck was a good place to aim with a 12 gauge bean bag round, since this would generally knock the person out, and that shooting people in the back as they were trying to flee was also a good idea.

The source also told World Vision that non-approved munitions had been used during the April 2006 Honiara riots and that the AFP had retrospectively amended the Commissioner’s Order 3 – which outlines acceptable use of force – to permit their use for a 28-day period.

The AFP says it has investigated the claims and denies them. But according to World Vision’s Director of Policy and Programs, Paul Ronalds, the officer in question was not interviewed as part of the investigation, and nor were other key witnesses. Ronalds says the officer is now facing serious internal pressure not to take the issue further.

‘[We are] concerned by the possibility and the perception that use of force options are being approved for use in overseas deployments which would not be approved in Australia,’ says Ronalds.

World Vision was invited to present their case at a public hearing in Melbourne last month, but the committee’s response was not what they expected – they were told they’d come to the wrong place, and that the committee was not in the business of addressing specific grievances. The claims have been given no further scrutiny.

Bizarrely, during the public hearing, Gow practically apologised for exposing the matter, and for inadvertently attracting media attention to the allegations, saying that World Vision ‘did not go looking for these issues,’ but felt a ‘moral obligation to raise them’ once the source was established as credible.

‘We stand by our submission and further state that, to the best of our knowledge, some of these issues have not been thoroughly investigated,’ she said. ‘Such investigations would presumably, at a minimum, include interviews with the officer and his personnel and other witnesses to the alleged incidents.’

During the hearing, Gow offered to give the committee the name and contact details of the officer but they declined. Furthermore, the Justice Minister is satisfied that the claims have been investigated internally, and the Ombudsman’s office says they haven’t received a complaint.

Which is all kind of concerning in the context of the AFP’s submission to the same Inquiry, which says that the AFP is currently in the process of ‘revolutionising’ its approach to offshore operations: ‘The increasing likelihood of deployment to volatile environments has resulted in a shift, in the case of police, in the authority to bear arms and use deadly force,’ it reads.

Next week: Right Cop for the Job? ‘A police officer from Belconnen is not necessarily naturally well-prepared to do capacity development in Baucau, East Timor.’

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