Bevan Hurley

Bevan Hurley is the Herald on Sunday chief reporter.

Landmine claims put Kiwi reputation at risk

A whistleblower alleges that as the war in Afghanistan reached its deadly zenith, Kiwi forces were asked to use booby-trapped mines to combat insurgents — weapons banned by an international treaty that New Zealand signed up to. Now, an Army officer is charged with planting explosive devices. Experts say our nation's hard-fought reputation as a compassionate fighting force could be under threat.

Soldier A says he and the second officer discussed the order and agreed it was illegal, and it was never carried out. Photo / AP
Soldier A says he and the second officer discussed the order and agreed it was illegal, and it was never carried out. Photo / AP

The order came as Soldier A was preparing to lead a dangerous mission to clear an area that had been teeming with Afghan insurgents.

"[Officer A] came over to speak to me. He asked me, 'do you know what you are to do if you come across a cache [of weapons and supplies]?' I replied, 'destroy it'. He replied, 'no, you are to booby trap the cache'."

Soldier A was stunned. He knew this was against the Laws of Armed Conflict, not to mention anti-landmine treaties and domestic New Zealand laws.

He says he was instructed to report to a second officer to learn how to set a tripwire to a Claymore mine.

Soldier A says he and the second officer discussed the order and agreed it was illegal, and it was never carried out.

"Keep in mind no one is trained to set booby traps in the military because it is illegal.

So if we did try and set one up we could easily blow ourselves up because we haven't been formally trained to do so," he says.

Another time, a soldier was allegedly ordered to rig a Claymore mine, which fires 700 steel balls up to 100m in a deadly 60-degree trajectory, to water containers he found in the mountains around New Zealand's Bamyan base.

The soldier, later killed in action, knew the area was frequented by local shepherds, often young children, who kept supplies hidden in the mountains.

Again the soldier refused, and the alleged order was not carried out.

Soldier A says troops on the deployment were banned from referring to them as mines or Claymores. Instead, they had to be called "charged directional fragmentation devices".

At a summary trial last week, an officer from the ill-fated Crib 20 deployment faced a charge of negligently failing to ensure that targets would be visually identified when ordering the placement of a booby trap. It is not suggested this officer gave the order to Soldier A. Indeed, it is unclear what evidence was presented to the tribunal. But after five hours of deliberation by a disciplinary officer, the charges were dropped because of a lack of evidence. The officer was granted permanent name suppression.

The officer's legal counsel Lt Col Ants Blythen said the charge "exposes the New Zealand Defence Force and by extension New Zealand to international media scrutiny over alleged possible breaches of the rules of war, international protocols".


At Human Rights Watch in Washington DC, New Zealander Mary Wareham says booby trapping Claymore mines would contravene the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, and New Zealand's Anti-Personnel Mines Prohibition Act 1998.

Wareham, the international watchdog's arms division advocacy director, says Soldier A's statement is "a disturbing allegation and it deserves to be investigated".

She says New Zealand is seen as a "good guy" in the global anti-landmine community.

"These charges from Afghanistan help demonstrate that New Zealand is committed to upholding its obligations under international and domestic law and to investigating and punishing any potential violations," Wareham says.

The booby-trapping allegedly happened in 2012, during summer in Afghanistan, when insurgent attacks increase.

American casualties jumped each year in summer, when warm weather made it easier for insurgents to move around the mountainous country and carry out attacks.

In August of that year, New Zealand forces faced a deadly wave of attacks: they were involved in the fiercest fighting seen by regular forces since the Vietnam War, and five soldiers died.


During his time in the Oman armed forces on the Arabian peninsula, former NZ First MP Ron Mark served in units that had access to Claymore mines and also suffered casualties from landmines.

He was a vociferous objector when New Zealand signed up to the anti-landmine treaty in 1997.

"Good reasoning, good logic — dumb answer," is his summary of the treaty.

He says correctly deployed, landmines can be used to protect defensive positions and removed when conflicts finish.

The Third World despots and dictators who the treaty should be targeting ignore international treaties.

Mark says it is wrong to sit in judgment of the Defence Force personnel without having any notion of the pressures they faced during the deadly summer of 2012.

"Until someone is in the position that our Defence Forces are in day by day, hour by hour, don't go leaping to judgment. If people seriously want to criticise these guys, go down to the recruiting office, put your name on the line. Go and do the job and show me how. Otherwise shut the hell up."

But Labour defence spokesman Phil Goff says an officer rigging Claymores, if true, would be "utterly undermining of our reputation and our values if an officer was to have done what was alleged".

"Surely after all the work that New Zealand as a country did on landmines we wouldn't have a senior officer saying we should be prepared to breach the convention," Goff said.

The Herald on Sunday revealed last year that a senior officer had been charged over allegedly planting explosive devices.

The paper asked a series of questions about the Defence Force's knowledge of use of illegal use of Claymore mines in Afghanistan.

In response, the Defence Force said it requires personnel to comply with New Zealand's obligations under the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and all relevant treaties relating to the use of weapons and munitions that New Zealand is a state party to.

"We take allegations of breaches of the LOAC and New Zealand's international obligations seriously. The NZDF investigates allegations of offending in this regard pursuant to the provisions of the Armed Forces Discipline Act 1971.

"The Defence Force continues to investigate the allegation relating to booby traps that was brought before a disciplinary officer in late 2013."


The New Zealand Defence Force has played an active role in clearing landmines from countries such as Angola, Cambodia and Afghanistan. The Government maintains a permanent mission to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs in Geneva, and donated $18 million to international anti-landmine efforts between 2008 and 2012.

But that commitment appears to have waned in recent years.

The axing of the specialist portfolio of minister for disarmament and arms control in 2011 by the National-led Government indicated a diminished commitment to the goal of disarmament, says Goff.

Meanwhile, the casualties from landmines continue to pile up.

In 2012, the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines recorded 3,628 mine casualties. Of those, at least 1,066 people were killed. Most were women and children.

The use of "live" landmines has been banned in New Zealand since 1997, when the then-National Government signed up to an international Mine Ban Treaty (the Ottawa Treaty) after a high-profile campaign led by Princess Diana.

Following in the tradition of our anti-nuclear stance, New Zealand played a leading role in disarmament programmes.

In 2007, the Defence Force faced criticism for the purchase 1,000 of the controversial Claymore landmines.

It retains "operational stocks" of Claymores, which must be detonated remotely when a target is identified.

Soldier A said he made a statement outlining his allegations to Military Police before leaving the Defence Force last year.


Another senior officer from the Crib 20 deployment, who spoke to the Herald on Sunday last year, said the troops took criticism of the tour very personally and felt as if they'd been judged unfairly.

"Some of us who are still in the Defence Force don't have the luxury of 'speaking out'," he said. "Five people died on that tour. It's deeply upsetting me that we're getting made to look like we were unprofessional and there was a division among the group.

"There's a really good story to tell about our tour.

"It's a story of sacrifice and courage. It's not our fault that we can't tell our story, we're bound by the Armed Forces Disciplinary Act. Just be fair to those of us who have sacrificed a fair bit for our country.

"What is said in public really matters to us because we do what we do for the public.

"To date, we haven't been painted for what we are, which is good blokes. We're professional and we're a team."

Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the tour, Ron Mark said the New Zealand Defence Force's hard-earned reputation was as strong as ever.

"Our Defence Force personnel enjoy a reputation internationally as being among the most caring, humane, compassionate troops that ever get deployed into peace keeping operations.

"That is why we are highly sought-after.

"The problem is we are not big enough, otherwise they would have us everywhere. Because of our compassion, our humanity, because of the way we treat indigenous people."

Mark said there were certain aspects of being a soldier that the public might find distasteful, but anything was better than bringing our troops back in bodybags.

"If you die in the process we'll put a flag on your coffin and the Prime Minister will come to your funeral and tell everyone that you were a wonderful young man or woman. They'll give you a medal — it'll probably cost $25."


- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 17 Sep 2014 18:47:22 Processing Time: 639ms