After the recent murder of three Australian soldiers, a raid to find rogue Afghan army sergeant Hekmatullah by combined Australian and Afghanistan forces resulted in two civilians being killed and sparked a political tit-for-tat.

Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai condemned the operation “as a breach of the memorandum of understanding signed between Afghanistan and NATO on the special military operations” and demanded an investigation into the incident. Defence Minister Stephen Smith defended the actions of the Australian soldiers, saying: “Any loss of life is regrettable, but Australian personnel were conducting themselves in accordance with our rules of engagement.”

But just what are our rules of engagement in warfare? Crikey spoke to former Australian Chief of the Army Peter Leahy, a professor at the University of Canberra, to learn more …

What are the Rules of Engagement (ROE)?

Military Rules of Engagement are laws that apply for soldiers in combat situations. They are based on the Laws of Armed Conflict created by the Geneva Convention and UN, which are tested by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Laws of Armed Conflict are agreed on by most international states to protect civilians and geographical treasures.

The ROE, however, are nation specific rules that may vary for each deployment and are created through an extensive legal process, explains Leahy. This includes passing through discussions and debates by military lawyers, the Attorney-General’s office and the federal cabinet. Once the rules are consented by these parties, the soldiers are handed a card — typically a red or yellow card — containing the rules they are to follow before training extensively in them.

“In my experience, all ROE are ruthlessly applied throughout the Australian and allied armies,” Leahy told Crikey.

Most of these rules run along similar lines. These guidelines are tested by the IRCR to create a level of international uniformity. These guidelines include avoiding civilian casualties, prohibiting genocide and torture, keeping Red Cross/Crescent zones safe and combat neutral, and ensuring the safety of captured combatants.

Why are the ROE denied to the public?

Despite the general guidelines that they are founded on, there is no standard book of Australian ROE because Australian can differ between each deployment.

Former minister of defence Robert Hill believed that the ROE are “by necessity, highly classified”. It is denied to the public for the safety of the Australian troops. The Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, a public policy think tank, reported that the Australian Defence Forces’ code of conduct is more stringent than that of the United States military, being party to more international treaties than the US.

Despite the setting of war, rules of engagement are supposed to ensure the safety of civilians and troops alike. “If the ROE become public knowledge, the enemy is more likely to find out and can then exploit what they know about how our soldiers will react under certain situations,” explained Leahy. “In these cases, some military secrets can be a good thing to have.”

Considering the stress of war, how likely are Australian soldiers to break the ROE?

There are safeguards to keep soldiers adhering to the ROE, two of which are their training before each deployment and the criminal consequences of breaking them. The severity of breaking a ROE is scaled. They range from standing trial for crimes such as murder to more serious cases where soldiers are accused of committing war crimes or crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

“By their level of training and their communities, Australian soldiers are unlikely to break these laws. They know what they can do and what they can’t,” said Leahy. “All our soldiers are well versed, well trained and apply all the rules and laws required.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey