The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recently published a report on the upswing in civilian casualties in the first six months of 2016. [UNAMA Press Release] More than 5,000 civilians were killed or maimed, the highest number of such casualties in Afghanistan in a six-month period since 2009 and one that includes significant numbers of women and children. See UNAMA, Afghanistan Mid-Year Report 2016: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (2016), 1-2. The report noted, in particular, the increase in deaths and injuries attributable to pro-government forces, although the majority of casualties remain a result of anti-government forces’ activities. See id. at 1-7. The report also details how the conflict has contributed to other human rights abuses, including sexual violence aimed at girls and boys, the use of children in armed conflict, the disruption of access to health care facilities and treatment, and a chilling effect on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. [UNAMA Press Release] UNAMA issued several recommendations to the government of Afghanistan, anti-government forces, and international military powers on ways all parties can curb the civilian casualties in Afghanistan. See United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Afghanistan Mid-Year Report 2016: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (2016), 8-11.
Although UNAMA’s recorded rate of civilian casualties, which includes both deaths and injuries, in the first six months of the calendar year in 2015 was the highest to date at that time, the first six months of 2016 surpassed that record with 1,601 civilian deaths and 3,565 civilian injuries. See id. at 1. The number of civilian deaths is down slightly from the same time period last year, but the 2016 numbers mark a four percent increase in overall casualties, counting both deaths and injuries. See id.
Causes of Civilian Casualties
The majority of civilian casualties were attributable to anti-government forces, but those attributable to pro-government forces increased from the previous year. Sixty percent of all civilian casualties were attributable to anti-government forces, while 23 percent were attributed to pro-government forces. See id. at 3. However, the casualties attributed to pro-government forces increased by 47 percent from the same time period in 2015, and casualties caused by anti-government forces’ activities were down by 29 percent from the first six months of the previous year. See id. at 4. Certain anti-government forces, though, such as the Taliban, continued to deliberately target civilians. See id. at 8. Other civilian deaths resulted from actions taken during ground conflicts and explosives that UNAMA could not decisively attribute to either party. See id. at 5.
While the majority of civilian casualties continue to be caused by ground engagements between both parties, during the reporting period more people were killed or injured by anti–government forces’ complex and suicide attacks as well as pro-government forces’ aerial attacks. See id. at 2, 7. Complex and suicide attacks became the second highest cause of civilian casualties. See id. at 7. Anti-government groups, including the Taliban and groups pledging allegiance to ISIS/Daesh, have been specifically targeting civilians using suicide and complex attacks in increased numbers. See id. This most recent report marked the first time the pro-government aerial attacks resulted in more casualties than the international military aerial operations. See id.
Women and Children Casualties
A significant percentage of the total casualties were women and children. Over 130 of those killed and 377 of those injured were women, and 1,509 children suffered casualties, making nearly one third of all civilian casualties minors. See id. at 2. Although there was a decrease in women casualties from the same time period in 2015, the 507 women casualties made up 10 percent of total civilian casualties in the first six months of 2016. See id. at 12. As compared to the same period last year, women casualties due to ground engagements increased by 16 percent, but women casualties as a result of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) decreased by 57 percent. See id. at 12-13. Women casualties attributable to pro-government forces increased from last year by 42 percent. See id. at 13.
Unlike the decrease in women casualties, children casualties increased by 18 percent from the previous year. See id. at 17. Children make up 29 percent of the total civilian casualties. See id. Ground engagements and explosive remnants of war were responsible for 1,070 children casualties. See id. at 18. Over 200 casualties were a result of IEDs, and 62 casualties were attributable to aerial attacks. See id. The latter increased by 50 percent from the year before. See id.
Additional Human Rights Abuses
Violations of Women’s Rights
In addition to being killed or injured, women have suffered other rights abuses in the context of the conflict. [UNAMA Press Release] Anti-government forces have deliberately targeted women working in the public sphere, such as female police officers, resulting in their deaths. See United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Afghanistan Mid-Year Report 2016: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (2016), 14. UNAMA noted that reports they reviewed noted that these attacks created a chilling effect, reducing women’s civil society participation. See id. Women and girls have systemically had their freedom of movement as well as access to economic, social, and cultural rights limited. See id. Anti-government forces prevented women from accessing health care and prohibited girl’s access to education beyond primary school. See id. The government has failed to fully support female-led households that have lost the primary breadwinner as a result of the conflict. See id.
Women have been subjected to severe physical punishments and executions for “moral crimes,” such as adultery. See id. at 15. The punishments have included lashings and stoning. See id. The government has failed to hold perpetrators accountable. See id. The executions and punishments, the report noted, constitute violations of domestic law and international human rights law. See id. UNAMA expressed concern that violent extremism results in a denial of women’s basic rights to fundamental freedoms. See id. at 15-16.
Violations of Children’s Rights
One of UNAMA’s key concerns regarding children is their recruitment into armed conflict. See id. at 18-19. Both Afghan security forces and anti-government forces have used children in conflict. See id. at 19. The United Nations Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting recorded 15 instances of recruitment and use of child soldiers, involving over 30 children. See id. Anti-government forces used at least three children as suicide bombers. See id.
UNAMA also noted the use of sexual violence against children. See id. UNAMA’s investigations confirmed incidents of abduction, rape, and sexual exploitation of children. See id. The actions, UNAMA emphasized, violate both domestic and international law. See id. UNAMA urged the Afghan Government to enact laws against the sexual exploitation of children. See id. at 20.
The conflict has also impaired children’s right to education through the purposeful targeting of educational institutions and teachers and through the use of schools for military purposes. See id. Anti-government forces have threatened and intimidated teachers and engaged in the targeted killings of educational personnel. See id. Moreover, girl’s education is particularly limited either directly or through the anti-government forces’ imposition of strict dress codes, such as mandatory burqas in schools. See id. at 21.
Disruptions in Health Care Services
UNAMA reported that pro-government forces and anti-government forces both disrupted health care services during the first six months of 2016. Anti-government forces deliberately targeted hospitals and health care personnel. See id. at 22. Pro-government forces conducted disruptive hospital searches, prevented medical supplies from reaching anti-government controlled areas, and used health care facilities for military purposes. See id. at 22-23. The violence has also affected children’s ability to get polio vaccinations; 358,000 children did not receive the vaccination during a national polio campaign in May 2016 because of violence and insecurity in certain regions. See id. at 25.
Limitations on Freedom of Expression
General insecurity due to violence, together with direct threats against members of the media in the early part of 2016 have prevented journalists from performing their jobs. See UNAMA, Afghanistan Mid-Year Report 2016: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (2016), 30. The Taliban does not treat media outlets as “civilian,” but rather as “military targets,” and therefore, the Taliban directly intimidates and attacks the media. See id. In January 2016, it conducted a suicide IED attack against a television station, killing several staff members. See id. UNAMA reiterated that media personnel are not participants in armed conflict and are entitled to protection under international human rights and humanitarian law. See id. at 31.
UNAMA Recommendations for Curbing Civilian Casualties
With regard to civilian casualties, UNAMA made recommendations to both pro-government and anti-government forces. See United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Afghanistan Mid-Year Report 2016: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (2016), 8-11. It urged the anti-government forces to stop targeting civilians and, in particular, journalists, aid workers, healthcare workers, and human rights defenders. UNAMA also requested that forces refrain from targeting religious and cultural centers. See id. at 8. Additionally, UNAMA asked that schools and hospitals not be used as locations for military use. See id. at 9. Anti-government forces, UNAMA recommended, should adopt a definition of “civilian” that meets international humanitarian law standards. See id. at 8. UNAMA warned against the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other forms of combat, such as mortars and grenades, in civilian areas. See id. at 9. The UNAMA also asked forces to uphold and enforce statements made by Taliban leaders regarding the protection of civilians and the human rights of women and girls. See id.
While UNAMA similarly urged the Afghan government to cease its use of mortars and grenades, it also asked that it cease the use of aerial attacks where civilians are located. Furthermore, UNAMA recommended that the government develop procedures for the use of explosives and aerial attacks. See id. It also advised the government to implement the national policy on mitigating civilian casualties, to investigate cases of violence against civilians and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, and to ensure remedies for victims. See id. UNAMA further pressed the government to disband illegal militias and armed groups. See id. The government should implement counter-IED activities, the report stated, and should, as recommended to the anti-government forces, stop using schools and hospitals for military pursuits. See id. at 10.
UNAMA recommended that international military forces both support the government and national security forces to mitigate civilian casualties and conduct its own independent investigations into civilian casualties. See id. at 10-11. The international military forces should do the former, UNAMA recommended, through assisting in implementing national policies, conducting trainings, and providing resources. See id. at 10. UNAMA asked the international forces to specifically investigate the October 2015 strike on a hospital and to generally investigate all allegations of civilian casualties and of international humanitarian and human rights violations. See id. at 10-11.
Afghanistan’s International Obligations
Afghanistan is a State party to the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and to several international human rights treaties, and, therefore, it has obligations under international humanitarian law, international criminal law, and international human rights law. See id. at 94-96. The Geneva Conventions prohibit attacks on civilians during armed conflict, and specifically prohibits murder, torture, and extrajudicial killings in non-international armed conflicts. See id. at 95.
As a State party to the Rome Statute, Afghanistan has the duty to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity within its jurisdiction. See id. at 97. The Rome Statute states that attacking civilians intentionally constitutes a war crime. See id. at 97-98.
Afghanistan is a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to life and prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. As the report notes, Afghanistan has the obligation to conduct effective investigations into the use of lethal force by its agents. See id. at 96.
Background on UNAMA
UNAMA was established by UN Security Council Resolution 1401 in 2002 at the request of the government of Afghanistan. Its mandate was most recently extended by Security Council Resolution 2274 in March 2016. The Mission is mandated to support the Afghan government in the process of peace and reconciliation, to monitor and promote human rights and the protection of civilians, and to promote good governance. See UNAMA, Mandate.