Afghanistan- Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Mid-Year Report 2014

About the author(s):

Katharine Fortin is an Associate Professor at Utrecht University where she teaches IHL and IHRL. Before joining Utrecht University, she worked at the ICTY, ICC and Norton Rose Fulbright. She is the author of The Accountability of Armed Groups under Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2017) which won the 2018 Lieber Prize. She has written widely about the framework of law that applies to armed groups in non-international armed conflicts and is one of the editors of the Armed Groups and International Law blog.

Yesterday, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan published its mid-year report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict covering the period 1st January – 30 June 2014.

The report was compiled further to Security Council Resolution 2145 (2014) “to monitor the situation of civilians, to coordinate efforts to ensure their protection, to promote accountability, and to assist in the full implementation of the fundamental freedoms and human rights provisions of the Afghan Constitution and the international treaties to which Afghanistan is a State party, in particular those regarding the full enjoyment by women of their human rights”.

Once again, the report is really interesting for those who are looking at how armed groups engage with humanitarian norms and processes of accountability. Of particular interest is its section providing statements from the Taliban on civilian casualties and examining its definition of civilian (see here for my previous blog post on the Taliban’s definition of civilian).

Of equal interest is the section of the report detailing and analysing the workings of the Taliban Civilian Casualty Unit. The report also examines the Taliban’s monthly statements on civilian casualties and its response to the UNAMA’s 2013 Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.

The report is long, but I have summarised its main findings on these points below.

Summary of the report’s main factual findings

The report finds that in the first half of 2014 the armed conflict between the government and the anti-government elements has taken a dangerous turn for civilians. For the first time since 2009 when UNAMA started reporting, the report finds that more civilians have been killed during ground engagements and crossfire than as a result of any other tactic. In previous years, the majority of civilians were killed as a result of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

In brief:-

UNAMA records 4,853 civilian casualties (1,564 civilian deaths and 3,289 civilian injured) for the reporting period. This represents a 24% overall increase (17% and 28% respectively) on the first six months of 2013.

UNAMA attributes 74% of these casualties to anti-government elements, a term which it defines as encompassing all individuals and armed groups involved in armed conflict or armed opposition with the government. It emphasises that the term does not only refer to the Taliban but also includes groups operating under labels such as the Haqqani network, Hezb-al-Islami, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, Lashkari Tayyiba and Jaysh Mohammed.

UNAMA attributes 9% to pro government forces (a term that includes the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Afghan Border Police, National Directorate of Security, Afghan Local Police, and pro government defence forces and militias).

UNAMA attributes 1% of these casualties to international military forces. It attributed 12% to ground engagements between anti-government elements and pro government forces, during which no specific responsibility could be ascertained.

The report highlights the fact that since UNAMA’s first report on the protection of civilians in 2009, the casualty rate by anti-government elements has doubled and the casualty rate by pro government forces and international military forces has been cut by half. It argues that this reduction is mainly due to the reduced casualty rates from aerial operations.

Causes of casualties

UNAMA found that the leading cause of civilian casualties was ground combat, accounting for 39% of all deaths and injured. It found that the increase in ground combat during the reporting period had had an unprecedented effect on women and children. The report states that child casualties from ground combat nearly doubled from the same period in 2013. The number of women who were killed or injured during ground combat increased by 61% from 2013.

The report found that deaths and injuries from IEDs placed by anti-government elements were also at unprecedented levels. Between 1 January and 30 June 2014, UNAMA documented 1,463 civilian casualties from IEDs which constitutes a 7% rise from the same period in 2013. It comments that this is the highest recorded level of civilian deaths and injuries from IEDs since UNAMA began reporting in 2009.

UNAMA recorded 205 incidents of anti-government elements using remote controlled IEDs in public areas, causing 607 civilian casualties. It also recorded 308 civilian casualties from pressure-plate IEDs, a 33% increase from the same period in 2013.

UNAMA recorded a decrease in suicide and complex attacks by ant-government elements from 2013. Attacks of this type were reported to cause 156 civilian deaths and 427 civilian injured in the reporting period. It found 9% of all civilian casualties to have been caused by targeted killings.

Conflict dynamics

Commenting on these figures, UNAMA noted the fact that they reflect a change in the dynamic of conflict in Afghanistan. In particular, it suggested that the figures reflected increased ground fighting in civilian populated areas. It attributed the increase in ground engagements in part to the closure of more than 86 ISAF bases in the last half of 2013. The report comments that the presence of ISAF bases had often stopped the movement of anti-government elements into populated areas. Now that anti-government elements are more present in populated areas, the civilian population is increasingly being caught in the crossfire as Afghan forces try to expel them.

Taliban claims of responsibility and statements about civilian casualties

As in previous years, the report has an interesting section (at p.20) where it analyses Taliban claims of responsibility and statements about civilian casualties.

UNAMA reports that in the first half of 2014, Taliban claimed responsibility for 147 attacks which caused 553 civilian casualties. Of the 147 attacks claimed by the Taliban, UNAMA reports that 75 seem to have been directed at military targets while 69 deliberately targeted civilians, such as tribal elders, civilian government workers, justice workers or people in public places such as restaurants.

UNAMA reports that between 1 January and 30 June 2014, the Taliban issued 17 statements claiming or denying responsibility for attacks, denouncing civilian casualties by pro-government forces and explaining Taliban targeting choices. It found that some of these statements either directly or indirectly claimed responsibility for civilian casualties.

The report observes that the Taliban issued lengthier statements of denial or claims of responsibility for attacks which attracted high-profile international media coverage.

It found that in a number of instances the Taliban referred to measures it had apparently taken to protect civilians. On a number of occasions, the Taliban suggested in public statements that the civilian population was responsible for its own protection and should keep away from objects or individuals that it saw to be military targets.

The report illustrates that the Taliban persists in adopting a definition of ‘civilian’ which is inconsistent with international humanitarian law (see here for blog post from August 2012 on this). For example, the report notes that the Taliban included civilian contractors, translators, administrators, logistics personnel, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, attorneys and judges as potential targets for their ‘Khaibar’ Spring Offensive.

According to the report, the most recent statement from the Taliban defining ‘civilians’ was from February 2013 which referred to civilians as ‘those who are no way involved in fighting, the white bearded people, women, children and common people who live an ordinary life’. The report highlights that in 2014 the Taliban issued further orders prohibiting the killing of women and children in times of armed conflict and providing strict guidelines for prevention of civilian casualties.

Taliban Civilian Casualty Unit

In June 2013, the Taliban announced that it was creating a unit dedicated to the avoidance of civilian casualties that would be under the supervision of its military commission.

According to the Taliban statement in June 2013, the mandate of this special organ was as follows:

  1. The responsibility of this organ is to get information, evaluate and send the report to the leadership of the Islamic Emirate regarding those civilian losses which are ascribed to Mujahidin whether they occur as the result of martyrdom attacks, landmines, rockets attacks or in the usage of other light or heavy weapons.
  2. In depth analysis and registration of those civilian losses which take place in the indiscriminate bombing, ruthless firing, raids or any other operations of the American invaders, the NATO trespassers or the indigenous stooges. The report of all this kind of civilian losses is sent to the head of the Military Commission so that necessary steps should be taken for the avoidance of their future recurrence.
  3. This organ bears the responsibility of thoroughly investigating those incidents which have occurred due to the negligence of Mujahidin and if the perpetrator is found guilty, he should be introduced to the Sharia court for due punishment.

In yesterday’s report, UNAMA states at p.25 that on 26 June 2014  it received a document from the Taliban providing more details of its Civilian Casualty Unit. The document (which is provided in an Annex at p70 of the report) states that the unit has been working since its inception in June 2013 to identify perpetrators of civilian casualties and if possible, punish them. It said that the Civilian Casualty Unit investigates each incident and publishes its results in monthly and annual reports.

The document provides some details of the Civilian Casualty Unit’s working methods and states that the evidence the Unit has collected suggested that the forces of the Karzai government and the Americans are the perpetrators of many incidents (see p. 71 of the report for a translation of this document).

In response, the UNAMA report states that the Civilian Casualty Unit’s findings do not accord with its own which have found anti-government forces to be responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties. It also urges the Taliban to adopt a definition of civilian which is in accordance with international humanitarian law and ensure that the Civilian Casualty Unit acts in furtherance of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. It also encourages the Taliban to publish details of the actions that it has taken to protect civilians and punish perpetrators of civilian casualties.

Taliban Monthly Statements of Civilian Casualties by Pro-Government forces

The UNAMA report details the Taliban statements for the first five months of 2014 which accuse pro-government forces of causing at least 357 civilian casualties in 120 separate incidents. UNAMA details the efforts that it took to verify these incidents, 47 of which it had already documented.

UNAMA reports that it was able to verify 61 conflict related incidents causing 216 civilian casualties. Its investigations indicated that 41 of the incidents (causing 105 civilian casualties) could be attributed to pro-government forces.

It found that a further 92 casualties took place in cross fire incidents between pro government forces and anti-government elements.

Taliban response to the 2013 UNAMA Report

The UNAMA provides details of the letter the Taliban wrote to UNAMA’s head in responseto its 2013 Report on the Protection of Civilians. In response to the report the Taliban reported that the protection of civilians was part of its strategy. It also responded to a couple of the core allegations in the UNAMA report, for example the Taliban use of IEDs and the number of civilian casualties caused by the Taliban. It confirmed that it had issued an absolute directive to its leadership prohibiting attacks in bazaars, markets, schools and bus stations. It also denied that it had been behind the attack on the ICRC and the Indian Consulate at Jalalabad.

The UNAMA report comments that the Taliban’s public statement on the UNAMA report rejected its findings more outrightly and dismissed the credibility and impartiality of the organisation.

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