New Zealand Labour Party

Scrutiny of battlefield deaths should continue

As New Zealand troops head to Iraq under a shroud of secrecy, the Government is pushing ahead with legislation to remove independent scrutiny of incidents where Kiwi soldiers are killed in hostile action overseas, Labour’s Defence spokesperson Phil Goff says.

Changes proposed to the Coroners Act will prohibit a coroner from launching an inquiry into the death of a Defence Force member if it occurred during hostile action on operational service.

“The Coroner will only be able to report on such a death if the Attorney-General, a politician, directs him or her to do so,” Phil Goff says. 

“Documents obtained by Labour reveal Defence Force boss Tim Keating was warned of major concerns around the changes in the Coroner’s Amendment Bill.

“He was told that:

  • while the changes were significant they were a reaction to a single incident with one coroner
  • the issues the changes were supposed to address were already dealt with in amendments to other parts of the Act
  • there was a negative perception from families and the media about how deaths will be investigated
  • there will be no mechanism for mandatory investigation into deaths of this type
  • not enough thought has been given to addressing the issue in a different manner.

“Having military deaths only investigated in-house raises suspicions that this is a convenient way of closing down investigation and criticism of Government and Defence Force decisions and mistakes.

“The documents also suggest that Justice Ministry officials misrepresented former chief coroner Neil MacLean as supporting the changes. In fact he has publically stated the changes are ‘undemocratic’ and out of step with other countries.

“Families of NZDF personnel killed overseas in recent years have pointed out the value of having an independent civilian judicial officer examine evidence and make recommendations about lessons that should be learned.

“With Kiwi troops commencing another deployment to a high-risk environment, first and foremost it’s important that decision-makers do everything possible to keep them safe. Should a tragedy occur however, families of soldiers and the New Zealand public need to know that proper and independent scrutiny will take place, and that lessons are learned to prevent any mistakes being repeated in the future,” Phil Goff says.