Afghanistan: Press briefing by Aleem Siddique, UNAMA Spokesperson's Office 28 May 2007


Good morning everybody. Welcome to our regular Monday morning briefing. As usual, we have a number of announcements to make from the United Nations family here in Afghanistan, before we move on to the main part of the press briefing, where we will be looking at the issue of protection of civilians.


As a result of a meeting yesterday between the Attorney-General of Afghanistan and Mr Saad Mohseni, founder of Tolo Television, the requirements of the recent ruling of the Media Complaints' Commission have now been satisfied. Mr Saad Mohseni apologised to Attorney-General Abdul Jabbar Sabet at his office in Shahr-e-Nau.

We welcome this development as a step forward both for the establishment of the rule of law and for the strengthening of a free and independent media in Afghanistan. UNAMA also commends the determination of both parties to move forward in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Ministry of Public Health has reported, investigated and coordinated the response to eight outbreaks of whooping cough in April and May.

In the past week alone there were two outbreaks - in the Chemtal district of Balkh province and in Panjwai, Kandahar.

Over two hundred and fifty suspected cases of whooping cough have been identified with one death reported to date. Over one thousand five hundred people have been vaccinated by the World Health Organisation against whooping cough over the past two months.

All health partners have been assisting in the response to these outbreaks - the provincial health directorate, WHO, UNICEF and various other NGO health providing services. They are providing antibiotics, vaccines and health teams to go door-to-door to check for patients and provide them with antibiotics.

The vaccination is effective and is given to all the children and adults in the household to prevent further transmission. Very ill infants need to be hospitalised. Whooping cough is prevented by having all of the infants in a community covered with three doses of the vaccine by their first birthday.


The International Organization for Organization (IOM) yesterday donated one hundred and thirty tents to house vulnerable deportees arriving from Iran. The tents have been transported to Afghanistan's western provinces of Farah and Nimroz and will be installed in the properties of local host families. IOM has also begun assisting families that have reached Kabul by providing blankets and medical assistance.

In the past month, a total of nearly 78,000 undocumented Afghan labour migrants and their families have been deported from Iran. Based on the incoming flow levels and Government projections, around 1,500 deportees will continue to arrive in Afghanistan every month.

IOM's assistance follows an appeal that President Karzai made to international community, asking for humanitarian assistance to deal with this massive influx, which is placing a huge strain on Government resources and threatens to create a humanitarian crisis.

GOVERNOR GIVES LAND TO DEMINERS (click here for full text)

Rahmatullah Rahmat, the Governor of Paktia, has donated land to twenty-six deminers who were victims of mine accidents. Governor Rahmat said that he greatly appreciated the deminers' work throughout Afghanistan.

The twenty-six deminers were all wounded in Paktia province during mine clearance activities. They have since returned to their homes, but most are unemployed and face challenging living conditions. The deminers and their families will be able to use the land to build new homes and generate much needed income through farming or raising livestock.

SIO: As many of you are aware, like the Afghan people, UNAMA is very concerned about the protection of civilians and we monitor this situation very closely. The protection of civilians is at the forefront of UNAMA's mind and today we are joined by Richard Bennett, head of our human rights unit here in UNAMA and his deputy, Javier Leon-Diaz. Richard will make a few opening remarks on this and then we will be happy to take your questions.

Richard Bennett: Thank you Aleem. Good morning everyone. As Aleem has said, we are here to talk to you and to try and answer your questions on the important subject of the protection of civilians affected by the armed conflict in Afghanistan. In recent months and last year as well, there have been reports of hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries caused by fighting in Afghanistan. In addition to deaths and injuries, civilians are affected in many other ways. They are forced to become internally displaced people, their property is destroyed and homes are lost. There is a loss of livelihoods, there is a loss of access to health and education services, just to cite a few examples.

International humanitarian law is clear - the protection and safety of civilians must come first and foremost. And this principle needs to be respected by all parties to this conflict. Insurgents and other groups using terrorist tactics must cease the kind of operations which have seen hundreds of civilians killed in recent months. We also call on the Afghan and international security forces to plan and coordinate their efforts better to ensure the protection of innocent civilians and to enhance the safety and welfare of communities. Insurgent groups and their leadership must stop the wanton disregard they have shown for innocent lives, including suicide bomb attacks; the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs); abductions; beheadings; and the deliberate use of civilian locations to plan and launch attacks.

In parallel, operations such as house searches, particularly at night, are causing distress amongst Afghans and these can only be fully successful on the basis of accurate intelligence, high quality translation, sensitivity to local culture and compliance with the law. Equally, further precautions need to be taken to reduce the risk of harm to civilians when military convoys travel through urban or other highly populated areas. Military forces must, wherever possible, forewarn communities before military operations are conducted. In particular, all parties should avoid, by all necessary means, combat in populated areas which is likely to result in high numbers of civilian casualties.

Over the past few weeks, UNAMA has extended its efforts from monitoring towards prevention. We have been holding consultations with communities in conflict-affected areas, including Jalalabad, Asadabad, Gardez, Herat and Kandahar. I myself have been to the south, the south-east and the east to conduct these consultations. We have been asking local actors to identify and prioritise their concerns and to suggest what the solutions might be. These consultations serve as preparation for amongst other things, a national workshop which will be held in August in Kabul. At this workshop, UNAMA will bring together Government representatives, Afghan and international military forces, Afghan civil society, including community representatives. It will look at ways of ensuring and improving the safety and welfare of all communities.

Finally, we ask all parties to the conflict to cooperate with UNAMA and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) while carrying out independent verifications into alleged incidents involving civilians. UNAMA stands ready to assist with these efforts over the coming months to ensure that the safety of the Afghan people comes first. Thank you.


Radio Free Europe: What is UNAMA's next step if the parties don't cooperate as you have requested them to do?

Richard Bennett: Well, obviously we hope that they do cooperate, at least to some extent. And especially, more importantly, we ask them to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law. But as I said, we have been consulting in the conflict-afflicted regions and people do want to address these issues. They do want to find better ways to protect civilians. So I'm confident that there will be an engagement. Of course, this takes hard work, and we've also talked to ISAF, and they have indicated that not only are they working hard and reflecting on this, but that they would also engage in the workshop I mentioned.

Noorin TV (translated from Dari): Since the beginning of 2007, there have been quite a large number of operations conducted by the international security forces in different parts of Afghanistan and the figures are higher compared to last year. If the same trend is continued, and the international security forces do not take any measures to stop these civilian casualties, don't you think that this will induce some sort of opposition towards these international security forces in different provinces of Afghanistan? In addition, could you give us the exact figures on the numbers of civilian casualties if you have them?

I would also like to ask UNHCR a question. In the coming month, four refugee camps will be closed down in Pakistan. Could you please tell us how many refugees are expected from these four camps, so that we are not faced with the same situation as we had recently with Iran?

Richard Bennett: It is correct that there have been a large number of operations this year. It is important that civilian casualties are minimised in order to retain support from communities in the international effort here and in the Government, and this is a point made recently by President Karzai. Having said that, I also want to say, that the number of attacks by the insurgents has also accelerated during 2007.

To give one example, in March and April this year, there were thirty-seven suicide bombings. In addition to the thirty-seven that operationalised another eight were intercepted - so in other words, there were eight more potential incidents. Last year, in the same period, there were twenty-three. So I think that we need to keep these things in balance. On the question of numbers of casualties, I think you know as well as I do, that counting casualties in Afghanistan is a very difficult business. We are operating in an environment in which kinetic operations are continuing, in which there is use of propaganda, in which access to places where the operations are taking place is extremely restricted. So it is very difficult to be accurate. I want to caveat my comments with all of that.

Having said that, we in UNAMA are in the process of developing a civilian casualties database. I do not claim that it's complete, or that we have full information. Some of the information that we can get directly, or some that is received indirectly through colleagues such as the Afghan Human Rights Commission, is fully verified. But a lot of the data is second or third-hand, and so it is not verified. If you ask me to put a figure on it, we believe that in the first four months of the year, there was in the range of 320 to 380 civilians killed.

UNHCR spokesperson: Regarding the closure of the refugee camps in Pakistan - this is not a new phenomenon. In previous years, we had about three hundred refugee camps in different parts of Pakistan, and when the returns start, the camps also start to be closed down. Four camps will be closed, two in Baluchistan and two in the north-west, in the NWFP (North Western Frontier Province) of Pakistan, and this issue has already been discussed with the Government of Afghanistan and UNHCR.

Two camps are located in Baluchistan, and two are in NWFP. The total Afghan population of these camps is 220,000 Afghans. What is very important is that in the last tri-partite commission meeting, UNHCR and the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed that Afghans who are currently residing in these camps would be given the option for voluntary repatriation back into Afghanistan, or relocation into other existing camps in Afghanistan. This is a very important point. It means that if Afghans are given the option of relocating, then there is no pressure on them to return. They have the right, they have their registration cards, which are valid until December 2009, confirming their presence and status as Afghans living in Pakistan, and they have the right to stay there.

Associated Press: About the 320 to 380 civilians killed. Is that in military operation and militant attacks?

Richard Bennett: Yes.

Follow-up question from Associated Press: We have seen that one reason or one factor I guess for support waning for the US and NATO maybe is the discrepancy of the figures reported which NATO and Coalition are reporting one figure and the villagers or local leaders are reporting another figure. How much do you feel that this is exacerbating the problem? Is it because of over simplification about the classification of the deaths or the categorisation? What is causing this discrepancy?

Richard Bennett: Well first, as I've said, gaining direct access to verify is extremely difficult. Although we would like to and I am sure that the ICRC would like to as well, we are not always able to do so. On the question of classification, I think what you mean is what is a civilian? In some cases people said to be Taliban by one side and claim to be civilians by the other. Our feeling is that this is probably the case and that it is a complex situation and extremely difficult to disentangle. As we know many Afghans have weapons in their homes and they may protect their homes. They might not be Taliban, but on the other hand they might be Taliban or other insurgents - it is very difficult to tell.

Question - Internews (translated from Dari): The latest decision announced by the Parliament suspending an MP, Malalai Joya, do you as in charge of the human rights department for UNAMA back Malalai Joya or the Parliament?

SIO: This is about ensuring rules and regulations governing the conduct of parliamentarian's are respected and any sanctions are proportionate to the alleged conduct. There are no sides to take as far as UNAMA is concerned. The side that we take is the side of the rule of law and the due process of law.

We will only see the rule of law strengthened in Afghanistan when the due process of law is followed correctly and that's where our focus needs to be. We need to give the authorities the opportunity to investigate this case according to the laws of the land and rules and procedures governing the conduct of parliamentarians. We cannot preempt any such investigations by the authorities.

Radio Killid (translated from Dari): The issue of civilian casualties has been repeatedly raised to the international security forces and that they must put measures in to avoid them. President Karzai also called upon them to take extra measures to stop them. We see here that it has not only been decreased but on the contrary, we see an increase in the number of these civilian casualties. Now given the international laws and human rights, which categories do you refer these violations to? Is this a violation of international laws or human rights?

UNAMA human rights officer: One thing that needs to be realised is that in conflict areas and in armed clashes, unfortunately, civilian casualties are often not totally avoidable. What also needs to be assessed is whether these casualties or these civilian deaths are proportionate to the military advantages gained by the military forces. Therefore parties to the conflict should take all precautionary measures before launching an attack in order to assess the military advantage and the possible number of casualties. The excessive use of force resulting in heavy casualties is against international humanitarian law. And that is why is UNAMA is calling on all parties to the conflict to take these precautionary measures before attacks and that civilian casualties are taken into account. One way to avoid high levels of civilian casualties is not to carry out combat activities in heavily populated areas - and as Richard referred to earlier - it is important to avoid combat activities in civilian populated areas.

Follow-up question Radio Killid (translated from Dari): So far we see that you are only calling upon the international security forces and other parties to take extra measures. I want to know how you classify this - is this a violation of international laws or not. Is it a violation of human rights or not?

UNAMA human rights officer: As I said, excessive force, that is not proportional to the military advantage, resulting in civilian casualties, is a violation of Geneva Convention, and could amount to a grave breach of those conventions.

SIO: What we are focusing on here is the both sides of the conflict, we are not just looking at the military forces - we are also looking at the insurgents. When a suicide bomber walks into a marketplace and blows himself up, then this is extreme excessive force demonstrating complete disregard for civilian safety - we are being even-handed here. We want to see these activities on the part of insurgents stopped and we want to see a proportionate use of force by the military forces according to the military objective that needs to be achieved.

Reuters: You mentioned a suicide bombing as an example of the specific use of excessive force. Has there been a specific use of excessive force by ISAF, US Coalition or Afghan military that you know of that violates international law?

Richard Bennett: An example I can think of is that on 4 March in Nangharhar province, there was an incident involving a convoy and my understanding is that that was investigated by the coalition forces and that they have concluded that there was the case to answer in relation to excessive forces. I have also been informed that compensation has been made to some families.

UNAMA human rights officer: In order to make an assessment of whether proportional force was used we need to have full access to the places. We would not try to make a legal analysis of the facts that are not fully verified. One of the problems that we are having - both UNAMA and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission - is that we do not have full access to the incidents. It is very hard to know how many civilians were killed, what the cause and the type of weaponry involved was. We do verification, but we need to have more cooperation for all sides to establish facts.

Richard Bennett: The question was also asking whether we are aware of any cases where ISAF or other foreign forces have acknowledged a violation. I think that is a question that you should put to them.

Kabul Afghanistan is a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The officials of the United Nations have repeatedly called upon all parties involved in Afghanistan to take measures on certain issues. Why not use the legal basis of the ICC to substantiate these kind of offences or violations so that people can be given justice.

UNAMA human rights officer: As you know the Rome statute applies to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide and other gross human rights violations attaching individual criminal responsibility. The ICC statute also says that it would act if a country is unwilling or unable to carry out prosecutions. The third point is that it would only apply from the date when it was ratified, not to events prior to the date of the ratification. Afghanistan did ratify the statute, and it became a law in Afghanistan through the Afghan Constitution.

Richard Bennett: Afghanistan's Government needs to pass some laws in order to fully implement it's ratification of the Rome statutes and we encourage the Government to do so. To my knowledge the Government has not referred to the ICC for assistance. And finally, and you might want to also ask the ICC about this. It is possible for the ICC to initiate inquiries into a country. It has not done so in the case of Afghanistan, in fact, it has chosen to do so in only a very few cases so far.

Thank you all.