A new panel has been installed by the Australian War Memorial at a Ben Roberts-Smith display acknowledging he was “involved and complicit in unlawful killings” but that he has not been criminally charged.
The War Memorial (AWM) faced fierce pressure to alter or remove the exhibits featuring Australia’s most decorated soldier in the wake of his landmark defamation loss to three newspapers earlier this year.
The Victoria Cross recipient sued The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times over a series of articles, published in 2018, which accused him of war crimes.
Justice Anthony Besanko ruled in June that the most serious imputations alleged in the articles had been proven, finding that two key killings had taken place.
The exhibit now has a new 84-word panel displayed next to Roberts-Smith’s uniform and equipment, which sits outside the Hall of Valour.
“Accounts of alleged misconduct by a small number of Australian Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan began appearing in the media from late 2016,” the new panel reads.
“Claims were later heard in a civil defamation case brought by Roberts-Smith against media outlets and journalists. In June 2023 a Federal Court Judge determined that there was ‘substantial truth’ to the allegations that Roberts-Smith had been involved and complicit in unlawful killings in Afghanistan. Roberts-Smith has appealed this decision.
“Roberts-Smith has not been charged with any offence under criminal law.”
On the balance of probabilities, Roberts-Smith was found by Justice Besanko to have kicked a handcuffed and defenceless Afghan civilian off a cliff in Darwan in 2012 before procuring soldiers under his command to shoot him.
He was also found by the Federal Court to have pressured a newly deployed and inexperienced soldier to execute an elderly unarmed man in order to “blood the rookie”.
Roberts-Smith has consistently denied the claims and is appealing the judgment.
The AWM installed a temporary panel in the wake of the judgment that acknowledged the “gravity” of the ruling that was “one step in a longer process”.
While it’s “positive” the new panel reflects the court findings, it “understates the severity” of the findings against Roberts-Smith, Chair of International Law at the University of Sydney Professor Ben Saul told NCA Newswire.
“It refers to him being involved in unlawful killings, it doesn’t say ‘involved in war crimes of murder’, which is what the Court essentially found, so it’s really under understating the severity of it...I think it is a bit tone deaf and it doesn’t serve the purpose of the memorial well, which is public education about what happens in war,” he said.
Professor Saul says that the AWM has prioritised displaying Roberts-Smith’s heroism and Victoria Cross medals over the court’s findings.
“I think the display still overwhelmingly presents him as a hero and minimises the fact that he was involved in war crimes of murder and I think that really gets the balance the wrong way around,” he said.
An AWM spokesperson said the “revised text panel” adds further context to the displays and acnowledges “the status of the defamation case”.