UN Reports Civilian Casualties, Rights Abuses Remain High in Afghanistan

Tadamichi Yamamoto, head of UNAMA, at the UN Security Council
Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

On July 17, 2017, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released its mid-year report on the situation of civilians in Afghanistan, revealing that the level of civilian casualties remains high. [UNAMA Press Release] UNAMA confirmed a total of 5,243 civilian casualties (1,662 deaths and 3,581 injured) from January 1 to June 30, 2017, which represents a decrease of less than one percent from the same period in 2016, but reported an increase in deaths. See UNAMA, Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Mid-Year Report 2017 (2017), at 3. The number of women and children killed and injured has increased this year, despite a decline in women and children casualties in 2016. [UNAMA Press Release] Civilian casualties in the first half of the year were primarily the result of anti-government forces’ use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), such as suicide bombs, in civilian-populated areas. See UNAMA, Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Mid-Year Report 2017, at 3–4. Medical facilities and schools continue to be targeted, impeding Afghans’ access to health care and education. See id. at 13, 17–19.

In consideration of its findings, UNAMA recommends that anti-government forces stop targeting civilians, that government forces stop using weapons such as mortars and rockets that can have devastating effects in civilian areas, and that international militaries support and train Afghanistan’s national army, among other recommendations. [UNAMA Press Release] In a statement recognizing the high rates of death and injury recorded in the report, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that the statistics on casualties do not depict the full extent of the loss and suffering, such as psychological trauma and displacement. [OHCHR Press Release] Afghanistan is a State party to the Rome Statute, Geneva Conventions, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and, therefore, the State must refrain from targeting civilians during non-international armed conflict and respect and protect the right to life.

Civilian Casualties

Compared to the same time period last year, civilian deaths increased two percent, while civilian injuries decreased one percent. See UNAMA, Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Mid-Year Report 2017, at 3. From January 1, 2009 to June 30, 2017, the conflict in Afghanistan claimed 26,512 civilian lives and injured 48,931 civilians. See id. at 3.


The majority of civilian casualties (67 percent) were caused by anti-government forces, increasing by 12 percent from the same period in 2016. See id. at 5–6, 31. The increase is due to the use of both suicide and complex attacks, as well as the firing of weapons during ground engagements, especially between anti-government forces and police at check points. See id. at 6, 31-32. UNAMA reports that of the anti-government caused civilian casualties, 65 percent are attributable to the Taliban. See id. at 32.

Pro-government forces caused 18 percent of civilian casualties, a decrease of 21 percent from the same period last year. See id. at 6, 51. This is due in part to a decrease in civilian casualties resulting from the use of indirect weapons, such as mortars, during ground engagements. See id. However, civilian casualties resulting from pro-government forces’ engagement in aerial operations increased 43 percent from 2016, highlighting the importance of properly assessing target areas and taking appropriate measures to mitigate impacts on civilians. See UNAMA, Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Mid-Year Report 2017, at 6, 51.

The remaining casualties were caused by unattributed cross-fire and detonations, and cross-border shelling by Pakistan’s military. See id. at 5.

Women and Children

Both women and children casualties increased in the first half of 2017, reversing the decline seen in 2016. See id. at 5, 11. UNAMA documented 636 women casualties (an increase of 23 percent from the same period last year) and 1,577 child casualties (an increase of one percent from the same period last year). See id. at 5. Children made up 30 percent of all civilian casualties during the reporting period. See id. at 14. These increases are attributable to the use of both IEDs and aerial operations in civilian areas. See id. at 5.

For women, the increase is also attributable in part to their participation in the workforce, particularly in government roles, as anti-government forces carry out indiscriminate attacks on government workers. See UNAMA, Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Mid-Year Report 2017, at 12. Anti-government forces also impose “punishments” on women believed to have behaved immorally – for instance, by beating and stoning women for alleged acts of adultery. See id. at 12–13.

The majority of child casualties were caused by anti-government forces. See id. at 14. Child casualties occurred most often during ground engagements. See id. at 15. However, child casualties caused by aerial operations almost doubled in the reporting period compared to the same period last year. See id. Children continue to make up the majority of civilians injured or killed by explosive remnants of war, often as they attempt to play with discarded devices. See id. at 19. UNAMA also documented several incidents of child abductions, recruitment of children for enlistment, and conflict-related sexual violence during the reporting period. See UNAMA, Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Mid-Year Report 2017, at 15.

Impact on Health Care and Education

UNAMA documented 32 incidents in which combatants targeted health care workers or facilities during the reporting period. See id. at 17. During the first half of 2017, anti-government forces targeted ambulances, burned down medical facilities, abducted health care workers, deliberately killed or injured health care workers, caused at least 20 medical facilities to temporarily shut down, and destroyed medical equipment. See id. Pro-government forces impeded the ability of civilians to enter medical facilities twice during the reporting period. See id.

In the same period of time, anti-government forces threatened girls’ schools, forcing six to temporarily close, which deprived more than 3,500 girls of their access to education. See id. at 13. When the schools reopened, only 10 percent of the student body initially returned, out of fear for the repercussions. See UNAMA, Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Mid-Year Report 2017, at 13.

UNAMA Recommendations

In order to come into conformity with their humanitarian obligations, UNAMA recommends that anti-government forces end the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian objects, cease the indiscriminate and excessive use of IEDs, stop firing mortars and similar devices into civilian-populated areas, follow the instructions from Taliban leadership not to attack civilians, hold those who conduct such attacks accountable, and eliminate current restrictions on the rights of women and girls, including the freedom to move, receive education, access health care, and work. See id. at 8–9.

Afghanistan’s government should, the report recommends, cease the use of weapons without a line of sight, cease the use of aerial attacks in civilian-populated areas, disarm and disband all illegal armed groups, minimize the risks and consequences of explosive remnants of war, further develop the ability of national security forces to conduct counter-IED operations, thoroughly investigate and prosecute all alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, protect the rights of victims to seek justice, and ensure the respect of medical facilities and personnel to achieve the highest possible standards of health care. See id. at 9. UNAMA also recommends that the government should implement a national policy to prevent and mitigate civilian casualties and create a government entity to investigate all incidents resulting in civilian casualties. See id.

International military forces should, the report further recommends, support Afghanistan in implementing the recommended national policy, continue to conduct transparent investigations into the role of international military forces in civilian casualties, and provide training and resources to Afghan national security forces, including with respect to their development of practices regarding counter-IED operations and the destruction of explosive remnants of war. See id. at 10.

Afghanistan’s Human Rights and Humanitarian Obligations

The Geneva Conventions, to which Afghanistan is a State party, prohibit during non-international armed conflict attacks on civilians; “violence to life and person,” including murder and torture; and the taking of hostages. See Geneva Conventions, Common Article 3. Afghanistan is also a State party to Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits attacks on civilians as well as “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” See Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, arts. 13–14.

As a State party to the Rome Statute, Afghanistan is primarily responsible for the investigation and prosecution of war crimes within its jurisdiction, including willful killings of protected persons, intentional attacks on civilians, the taking of hostages, and extensive unjustified destruction of property, among many other actions. See Rome Statute, preamble and art. 8(2). If Afghanistan fails to investigate and prosecute potential war crimes that occurred in its jurisdiction, the International Criminal Court (ICC) may investigate and prosecute the crimes; the ICC is currently conducting a preliminary examination of the situation in Afghanistan to determine whether it should open a criminal investigation. See Rome Statute, art. 17; ICC, Afghanistan.

As a State party to the ICCPR, Afghanistan must protect the human rights of all persons within its jurisdiction, including the right to life, which includes conducting effective investigations into the use of lethal force. See ICCPR, arts. 2, 6; UNAMA, Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Mid-Year Report 2017, at 61.

Background on UNAMA

UNAMA was established by UN Security Council Resolution 1401 in 2002 at the request of the Afghan government. Its mandate, which was most recently renewed in March 2017, is to monitor and promote human rights, work toward the protection of civilians during armed conflict, promote good governance, and support the development of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. See UNAMA, Mandate.

Additional Information

For more information about UNAMA’s 2016 mid-year report, international criminal law, international humanitarian law, women’s rights, or children’s rights, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.

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