Afghanistan: Protection of civilians in armed conflict 2019 (February 2020)

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The armed conflict in Afghanistan continued to take a heavy toll on the civilian population in 2019 with UNAMA recording over 10,000 civilian casualties for the sixth year in a row. Since UNAMA began systematic documentation in 2009, it has documented more than 100,000 civilian casualties, with more than 35,000 killed and 65,000 injured. The impact of the conflict, however, goes well beyond the numbers, taking into account the extensive and durable harm caused to the physical, mental, social and economic well-being of individuals, families and communities.

UNAMA documented 10,392 civilian casualties (3,403 killed and 6,989 injured) as a result of the armed conflict, representing a five per cent decrease as compared to 2018 and the lowest overall level of civilian casualties since 2013. This reduction was driven by decrease in civilian casualties caused by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP). Civilian casualties caused by the other parties increased, particularly by the Taliban and by the international military forces.

There were significant fluctuations in violence throughout the year, coinciding with gains and setbacks made during negotiations between the Taliban and the United States of America in Doha. The first half of the year was characterized by an intense campaign of airstrikes by international military forces and search operations by Afghan forces, particularly by the National Directorate of Security Special Forces. These operations contributed to a higher number of civilian deaths attributed to Pro-Government Forces than Anti-Government Elements at the midyear point, a trend that UNAMA had not documented before 2019. This was followed by a particularly violent third quarter, which showed the highest number of civilian casualties of any quarter since UNAMA began systematic documentation in 2009. This was mainly due to a spike in civilian casualties from suicide and non-suicide IED attacks by Anti-Government Elements, primarily the Taliban, as well as election-related violence. Despite low levels of civilian casualties in the fourth quarter as compared to the same time period in 2018, the year ended with record high levels of civilian casualties from airstrikes and search operations in a single year and the highest number of civilian casualties from non-suicide improvised explosive devices (IEDs) since 2015.

Anti-Government Elements continued to cause the majority (62 per cent) of civilian casualties in 2019. Their use of IEDs in both suicide and non-suicide attacks continued at extreme levels in 2019; combined, they remained the leading cause of civilian casualties, accounting for 42 per cent of the overall total. UNAMA documented 4,336 civilian casualties (885 killed and 3,451 injured) resulting from suicide and non-suicide IED attacks combined, representing a six per cent decrease from 2018. However, civilian casualties attributed specifically to the Taliban from combined IED tactics reached the highest levels UNAMA had ever recorded in a single year.

Suicide IED attacks, including complex attacks, by Anti-Government Elements in 2019 caused 2,078 civilian casualties (378 killed and 1,700 injured), representing a 26 percent decrease as compared to 2018. However, the decrease was mainly due to a substantial drop in these attacks by ISIL-KP.16 Suicide attacks, including complex attacks by the Taliban, on the other hand, increased substantially in 2019, as did their attacks using large vehicle-borne IEDs (“truck bombs”).

UNAMA documented an upsurge in civilian casualties from non-suicide IED attacks in 2019 from both the Taliban and ISIL-KP. Attacks from these devices resulted in 2,258 civilian casualties (507 killed and 1,751 injured), representing a 24 per cent increase as compared to 2018. The Taliban still caused more than three times as many civilian casualties from non-suicide IEDs as ISIL-KP. Of grave concern, the Taliban continued to use pressure-plate IEDs that functioned as anti-personnel mines. UNAMA documented incidents in which these devices emplaced by the Taliban detonated from the mere weight of a child. UNAMA reiterates its call on the Taliban to completely ban its use of pressure-plate IEDs, which are victim-operated and inherently indiscriminate, and to uphold its previous commitments not to use anti-personnel mines in its operations.

Ground engagements, mainly between Pro-Government Forces and Anti-Government Elements, remained the second leading cause of civilian casualties in 2019. UNAMA documented the lowest number of civilian casualties from ground engagements since 2013. From 1 January to 31 December 2019, ground engagements in Afghanistan caused 3,057 civilian casualties (763 killed and 2,294 injured), representing a 10 per cent decrease in comparison to 2018 and the third year of sustained overall reductions. The overall decrease of civilian casualties from ground engagement was mainly caused by a 37 per cent drop in civilian casualties by direct fire, and partly offset by an increase of seven per cent of civilian casualties from indirect fire. In contrast with previous years when AntiGovernment Elements caused more civilian casualties from ground engagements, in 2019, Pro-Government Forces caused slightly more civilian casualties using this tactic, mainly due to a relative increase in civilian casualties from indirect fire by Afghan national security forces. Civilian casualties from ground engagements by Anti-Government Elements decreased 11 per cent as compared to a 25 per cent overall increase by Pro-Government Forces.

Of particular concern, Anti-Government Elements continued to deliberately target civilians using a variety of tactics including suicide and non-suicide IEDs. UNAMA documented a 31 per cent decrease in 2019 as compared to 2018, which was mainly due to a sizeable drop in civilian casualties from suicide attacks, including complex attacks, perpetrated by ISIL-KP against civilians. Civilian casualties from deliberate attacks against civilians that were attributed to the Taliban only decreased by six per cent whereas those attributed to ISIL-KP decreased by 48 per cent. However, despite the overall decrease, UNAMA is particularly concerned with the spike in civilian casualties of deliberate attacks targeting judges and prosecutors, healthcare workers, and aid workers as well as the continued attacks by ISIL-KP against the Shi’a Muslim population, most of whom also belong to the Hazara ethnic group. This includes the deadliest incident of the year, on 17 August - a sectarian suicide attack in Kabul by ISIL-KP on a wedding, mainly attended by Shi’a Muslims, in which 91 civilians were killed and 143 others sustained injuries, including women and children. UNAMA is also outraged by the Taliban’s attacks on human rights defenders and aid workers, who are working for the development and protection of human rights, such as on 8 May, against the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Counterpart International, in Kabul, which also impacted Care International, and the abduction and killing, in September, of Abdul Samad Amiri, a human rights defender from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Ghor province.

Following a disturbing pattern of attacks against civilians and civilian objects during the parliamentary elections in 2018, UNAMA documented attacks against voters, campaign workers, candidates and others involved in the electoral process leading up to and during the presidential election in 2019, mainly perpetrated by the Taliban. Their widespread use of indirect fire in populated areas on polling day caused significant levels of harm, striking civilians – including children – in their homes, while IEDs placed at or near polling centres exposed voters to extreme risk. UNAMA reiterates that attacks deliberately targeting civilians and civilian objects are serious violations of international humanitarian law that may amount to war crimes.

UNAMA documented nine incidents of AntiGovernment Elements resorting to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment under the guise of enforcing decisions of their parallel justice structures, including executions. UNAMA stresses that such punishments amount to human rights violations and abuses, and severe punishments such as executions constitute serious violations of international humanitarian law that may amount to war crimes.

In 2019, UNAMA documented 1,045 civilian casualties (700 killed and 345 injured) a slight overall increase in civilian casualties from airstrikes by Pro-Government Forces, the fifth year in a row of sustained increases, leading to record high civilian casualty levels. Airstrikes provoked 10 per cent of all civilian casualties in 2019, the majority (72 per cent) of which were caused by international military forces. Although the Afghan Air Force gained the capacity to conduct strikes at night from December 2018 onwards, which carried the potential of increasing civilian casualties attributed to them,
UNAMA documented a decrease in such casualties attributed to them.

UNAMA is particularly concerned about targeting policies used by USFOR-A to deliberately target individuals who were neither directly participating in hostilities nor performing a continuous combat function within an armed group, such as individuals who may be financially contributing to the Taliban or ISIL-KP. UNAMA reiterates that individuals who are supporting an armed opposition group – politically, financially or otherwise - but who do not have a continuous combat function in the organized armed group, are not considered to be members of the armed group under international humanitarian law. As civilians, they are protected from attack, unless and for such time as they directly participate in hostilities. Should these individuals engage in criminal activity, the appropriate response is law enforcement, not military action.

UNAMA continued to document high levels of civilian harm from the use of force during search operations (“night raids”) by NDS Special Forces and the Khost Protection Force, as well as a Paktikabased pro-Government armed group called “Shaheen Forces”, to which UNAMA attributed civilian casualties for the first time in 2019. UNAMA documented several incidents of intentional killing of civilians, some of which amount to summary executions, in the context of these search operations.

Women and children continued to suffer disproportionately from the armed conflict. UNAMA documented 1,202 women casualties (345 killed and 857 injured), an increase of four per cent compared to 2018. An increase in women casualties from the combined use of suicide and non-suicide IED attacks more than offset decreases from aerial attacks and ground engagements. UNAMA documented 3,149 child casualties (874 killed and 2,275 injured), a three per cent increase from 2018. Women casualties comprised 12 per cent of overall civilian casualties while children comprised 30 per cent.

Children continue to be recruited and used by the Taliban, Afghan national security forces, and pro-Government armed groups. While progress has been made by the Afghan national security forces on preventing formal recruitment of children through the work of the Child Protection Units in Afghan National Police recruitment centres, use of children, particularly by Afghan Local Police at check posts, remains a problem, as does the use of boys for sexual purposes. The majority of recruitment and use cases verified by UNAMA, however, were attributed to the Taliban. UNAMA notes that the Taliban’s Commission for the Prevention of Civilian Casualties and Complaints took some positive steps forward in 2019 in terms of investigating allegations of recruitment of children by Taliban commanders, and encourages further efforts be made on prevention.

Despite the criminalization of bacha bazi (a form of sexual abuse and exploitation of boys) in the revised Penal Code, UNAMA continues to receive reports of such crimes perpetrated mainly by the Afghan national security forces. UNAMA is aware of only one case of bacha bazi that has been successfully prosecuted under the relevant provisions of the revised Penal Code since it came into effect in February 2018.26 A culture of silence, shame, and victim -blaming pose significant challenges to accountability efforts.

The ability of all people in Afghanistan, particularly children, to enjoy their human rights to education and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health was compromised by the conflict due to attacks on schools, hospitals, teachers and healthcare workers, as well as acts of threats and intimidation. In 2019, attacks against schools and hospitals also occurred in the context of the presidential elections when they were used as polling centers. UNAMA is concerned about the high number of disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks perpetrated by the Taliban throughout the year that caused damage to schools and hospitals, and harmed the students and patients inside. UNAMA is also concerned about the impact on the provision of healthcare and on healthcare workers from Pro-Government Forces’ search operations within these facilities.