Afghanistan: Annual report on protection of civilians in armed conflict, 2009

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Executive Summary

The intensification and spread of the armed conflict in Afghanistan continued to take a heavy toll on civilians throughout 2009. At least 5,978 civilians were killed and injured in 2009, the highest number of civilian casualties recorded since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Afghans in the southern part of the country, where the conflict is the most intense, were the most severely affected. Nearly half of all civilian casualties, namely 45%, occurred in the southern region. High casualty figures have also been reported in the southeastern (15%), eastern (10%), central (12%) and western (8%) regions. Previously stable areas, such as the northeast, have also witnessed increasing insecurity, such as in Kunduz Province. In addition to a growing number of civilian casualties, conflict-affected populations have also experienced loss of livelihood, displacement, and destruction of property and personal assets.

UNAMA Human Rights (HR) recorded a total of 2,412 civilian deaths between 01 January and 31 December 2009. This figure represents an increase of 14% on the 2118 civilian deaths recorded in 2008. Of the 2,412 deaths reported in 2009, 1,630 (67%) were attributed to anti-Government elements (AGEs) and 596 (25%) to pro- Government forces (PGF). The remaining 186 deaths (8%) could not be attributed to any of the conflicting parties given as some civilians died as a result of cross-fire or were killed by unexploded ordinance.

AGEs remain responsible for the largest proportion of civilian deaths. Civilian deaths reportedly caused by the armed opposition increased by 41% between 2008 and 2009, from 1,160 to 1,630. Deaths resulting from insurgent-related activities in 2009 were a ratio of approximately three to one as compared to casualties caused by PGF. 1,054 civilians were victims of suicide and other improvised explosive device (IED) attacks by AGEs and 225 were victims of targeted assassinations and executions. These make up the majority of casualties caused by AGE activities and is 53% of the total number of civilian deaths in 2009. Together, these tactics accounted for 78% of the noncombatant deaths attributed to the actions of the armed opposition. The remainder of casualties caused by AGE actions resulted primarily from rocket attacks and ground engagements in which civilian bystanders were directly affected.

Suicide and IED attacks caused more civilian casualties than any other tactic, killing 1,054 civilians, or 44% of the total civilian casualties in 2009. Although such attacks have primarily targeted government or international military forces, they are often carried out in areas frequented by civilians. Civilians are also deliberately targeted with assassinations, abductions, and executions if they are perceived to be supportive of, or associated with, the Government or the international community. A broad range of civilians - including community elders, former military personnel, doctors, teachers and construction workers - have been targeted. Other actors, such as the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also been targeted, often receiving threats, and in some cases becoming victims of violence. Through these actions, the armed opposition has demonstrated a significant disregard for the suffering inflicted on civilians. Intermingling with the civilian population and the frequent use of residential homes as bases puts civilians at risk of attack by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and international military (IM) forces.

Pro-Government forces - Afghan National Security Forces and International Military (IM) forces - were responsible for 596 recorded deaths; this is 25% of the total civilian casualties recorded in 2009. This is a reduction of 28% from the total number of deaths attributed to pro-Government forces in 2008. This decrease reflects measures taken by international military forces to conduct operations in a manner that reduces the risk posed to civilians.

Notwithstanding some positive trends, actions by PGF continued to take an adverse toll on civilians. UNAMA HR recorded 359 civilians killed due to aerial attacks, which constitutes 61% of the number of civilian deaths attributed to pro-Government forces. This is 15% of the total number of civilians killed in the armed conflict during 2009. IM forces and ANSF also conducted a number of ground operations that caused civilian casualties, including a large number of search and seizure operations. These often involved excessive use of force, destruction to property and cultural insensitivity, particularly towards women.

UNAMA HR remains concerned at the location of military bases, especially those that are situated within, or close to, areas where civilians are concentrated. The location and proximity of such bases to civilians runs the risk of increasing the dangers faced by civilians, as such military installations are often targeted by the armed opposition. Civilians have been killed and injured as a result of their proximity to military bases, homes and property have been damaged or destroyed; this can lead to loss of livelihood and income. The location of military facilities in or near residential neighborhoods has also had the effect of generating fear and mistrust within communities and antipathy towards IM forces given their experience of being caught in the crossfire or being the victims of AGE attacks on Government or pro- Government military installations

International military forces did take strategic and specific steps to minimize civilian casualties in 2009. The change in ISAF command, clearer command structures, and a new tactical directive have all contributed to the efforts by ISAF to reduce the impact of the armed conflict on civilians. However, a Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell, that was established in 2008 in ISAF (with a similar tracking mechanism in USFOR-A) has not proved very effective in addressing UNAMA concerns in a timely manner. Measures need to be taken to improve the Tracking Cell so that it can be more responsive and helpful in relation to civilian casualty incidents.

This report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict in Afghanistan in 2009 is compiled in pursuance of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) mandate under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1868 (2009). UNAMA Human Rights undertakes a range of activities aimed at minimizing the impact of the conflict on civilians; this includes independent and impartial monitoring of incidents involving loss of life or injury to civilians and analysis of trends to identify the circumstances in which loss of life occurs. UNAMA Human Rights officers (national and international), deployed around Afghanistan, utilize a broad range of techniques to gather information on specific cases irrespective of location or who may be responsible. Such information is cross-checked and analyzed, with a range of diverse sources, for credibility and reliability to the satisfaction of the Human Rights officer conducting the investigation, before details are recorded in a dedicated database. An electronic database was established in January 2009. The database is designed to facilitate the collection and analysis of information, including disaggregation by age and gender. However, due to limitations arising from the operating environment, such as the joint nature of some operations and the inability of primary sources in most instances to precisely identify or distinguish between diverse military actors/insurgents, UNAMA HR does not break down responsibility for particular incidents other than attributing them to "pro-Government forces" or "anti- Government elements." UNAMA HR does not claim that the statistics presented in this report are complete; it may be the case that, given the limitations in the operating environment, UNAMA HR is under-reporting civilian casualties.

UNAMA HR information on civilian casualties is, routinely, made available, internally and externally, to the Security Council through the UN Secretary General, the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) UNAMA, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and other UN mechanisms as appropriate. UNAMA Human Rights advocates with a range of actors, including Afghan authorities, international military forces, and others with a view to strengthening compliance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law. It also undertakes a range of activities on issues relating to the armed conflict, and protection of civilians with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the humanitarian community, and members of civil society.

2009 was the worst year in recent times for civilians affected by the armed conflict. UNAMA HR recorded the highest number of civilian casualties since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. The conflict has intensified and spread into areas that previously were considered relatively secure. This has resulted in increasing numbers of civilian dead and injured and with corresponding devastation and destruction of property and civilian infrastructure, often leading to loss of income and livelihoods. The use of asymmetric tactics by the armed opposition is a significant factor in the growing number of civilians who are killed and injured. The use of air strikes and the placement of military facilities in civilian areas greatly increase the risk of civilians being killed and injured. The United Nations calls upon all parties to the conflict to respect and uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law in order to minimize the impact of the conflict upon civilians.