Overseeing New Zealand's Modern Military Operations: Rhys Ball and Wil Hoverd Discuss the Implications for Democracy and National Security of the Deployment of Special Operations Forces

By Ball, Rhys; Hoverd, Wil | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2017 | Go to article overview

Overseeing New Zealand's Modern Military Operations: Rhys Ball and Wil Hoverd Discuss the Implications for Democracy and National Security of the Deployment of Special Operations Forces


Ball, Rhys, Hoverd, Wil, New Zealand International Review


"The integrity of the Defence Forces is too important not to investigate this fully and properly ...' (Barry Coates MP, 8 August 2017) (1)

New Zealand has had an active special operations force since 1956. It has been deployed to places such as Malaya, Borneo, East Timor and, more recently, Afghanistan. This article outlines how New Zealand's special operations forces might continue to contribute to the interests of the state by engaging in a broader discussion about this country's national security and the relationship between democracy and the military in light of the recent 'Hit and Run' allegations.

Politics and New Zealand special forces have been indirect and direct bedfellows in one form or another since the creation of this military force over 60 years ago. New Zealand's special forces have progressively expanded their capabilities, influence and strategic footprint thanks in large part to operationally successful campaigns and a higher public profile (think Corporal Willie Apiata VC). And when the former New Zealand Prime Minister John Key publicly describes the New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) as 'the Ferrari of the New Zealand military', as he did in 2016, we can perhaps deduce the perceived political value that such a force generates in a wider national security sense. (2)

But in early April 2017, Prime Minister Bill English gave a press conference (3) where he responded to a call for an official inquiry into the allegations of war crimes made against NZSAS operations in 2010 as they were documented in the book Hit & Run written by investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson. (4) English considered that, after receiving a 'detailed briefing' from Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Tim Keating, including official reports and classified video footage, 'there was no basis for launching an inquiry'. In response to this announcement, Hager wrote that the decision was 'the result of military pressure on the government: the tail wagging the dog' and was 'not good for the country'. Hager added:

   Bill English is an experienced minister who knows the difference
   between being shown selective information by an interested
   party, as he has been by the defence force, and having an
   independent inquiry. This does not appear [to be] a rational
   decision based on evidence; it is helping the military bureaucracy
   to avoid having to front up. (5)

In this article, our purpose is not to argue that one or other party is correct or that another is lying; rather it is our intention to focus upon the broader issues this debate has raised in thinking about democratic governance, public accountability and the role of the military now and in the future. This most recent set of allegations perhaps points to the fragility of New Zealand's democratic processes around military deployment and action. Specifically, we review our constitutional structure for deployment and show that the executive decision-making power to deploy and act militarily continues to rest in the hands of only a few people. Finally we suggest that as New Zealand's military deployments move away from a paradigm of mandated United Nations deployments towards ever-increasing participation with traditional partners, it might be a useful exercise to consider if there is a possible role for an independent oversight mechanism to make our deployment procedures and activities more robust.

Constitutional accountability

Militaries deploy to conflict as an extension of the executive power of a nation. New Zealand has no formal constitution; consequently, executive authority tends to be derived from a series of acts of Parliament and other documents. When it comes to defence, the relevant document is the Defence Act 1990, which explains that the governor-general, on behalf of the sovereign, is responsible 'for continuing to raise and maintain armed forces, either in New Zealand or elsewhere for the following purposes:

(a) 'the defence of New Zealand, and of any area for the defence of which New Zealand is responsible under any Act:

(b) the protection of the interests of New Zealand, whether in New Zealand or elsewhere:

(c) the contribution of forces under collective security treaties, agreements, or arrangements'. …

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