The Prime Minister says Kiwi soldiers in Iraq haven’t moved beyond a purely training role based on the “very scant” advice she’s received.
On Monday Stuff Circuit revealed information that New Zealand’s mission in Iraq has undergone a significant change, without the public being told.
A report by human rights campaigner Harmeet Sooden reveals soldiers have taken up new responsibilities to help Iraqi forces plan and conduct military operations.
But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says her briefing from officials on the back of Stuff Circuit’s story is that “in their view they hadn’t extended beyond the mandate they were given”.
“In the future when an OIA (Official Information Act) request was put in, the view was it was no longer needed to be kept as secure information,” she said.
That location is Qayyarah West Airfield, which is 60km from Mosul.
Information provided to Stuff Circuit revealed New Zealand began operating out of the base before May 2017, which was during the time of the build-up to the final push of the Battle of Mosul.
However, Ardern said her advice was that no training by New Zealand forces had actually occurred at that camp.
She said her Government had “inherited the current arrangements” and based on that she understood there had been a change that allowed “forces within Taji, within the camps, to provide a mentoring role”.
Ardern didn’t directly comment on whether New Zealand Defence Force’s mandate had extended to what’s known as “advise and assist”, which is described as planning and conducting military operations, for example providing drone imagery to the Iraqi security forces.
“All I can say is what I’ve been advised on this morning. I haven’t necessarily received the full information that the last Government received at the time that they made their decisions, which were ultimately their decisions.
“It’s been described to me…as a mentoring role and the briefing I’ve had has been pretty quick,” she said.
Asked whether mission creep was at play, Ardern said “the view I’ve received is they operated within their mandate”.
Sooden’s research also revealed New Zealand soldiers are involved in a controversial programme to record the biometric data of Iraqi soldiers.
He is concerned about the human rights implications of this and the information getting into the wrong hands.
Ardern confirmed biometric data had been collected “which became standard practice I understand some years ago for all coalition forces”.
She said it was done as a way of making sure there is “some screening” of those soldiers who are being trained to “ensure the security of those who are undertaking the training”.
The Government is set to decide whether to renew the mission to Iraq in November.
“This is a landscape where it’s incredibly important we make decisions based on the context. There’s a lot of political activity likely to happen before November, political elections etcetera that may change the environment.
“I want to make sure we make the decision at the time with all the information around the current role we’re playing, what’s required, but ultimately a decision in the best interests of New Zealand.”
Ardern meets with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull next month, where she says she’ll be interested in what Australia’s thinking is around extending the mission.
While she said she is interested in all Parliamentarians views on issues like an Iraq mission, “ultimately the responsibility always falls on the Government of the day”.
“We are the ones who have to bear the responsibility, in part because we are the ones who have access to all the information at the time we make the decision, and not all that information will always be publicly known so we’re the ones who should bear the brunt of that responsibility,” she said.