Afghan police and military forces, Taliban insurgents and foreign troops must step up efforts to prevent more civilian casualties, an independent United Nations human rights expert said today, warning that Afghanistan still suffers from large numbers of avoidable killings.
Speaking to the press in Kabul after wrapping up an official visit to Afghanistan, Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said that all too often, the perpetrators of such crimes go unpunished.
“The fact that there is an armed conflict does not mean that large numbers of such killings can be tolerated,” he said.
The Taliban and other anti-Government elements are responsible for the majority of the unlawful killings, he said, with their routine suicide attacks and targeted assassinations.
“Real pressure must be put on the Taliban to cease these wanton and brutal killings of civilians. In addition to exposing and condemning these killings, this also means that those concerned with human rights should talk directly with the Taliban, and impress upon them the long-term consequences of committing human rights abuses.”
Mr. Alston stressed that while some people believed that speaking with the Taliban would give the group more legitimacy, this was a mistake.
“The Taliban exist, they are engaged in widespread killings; we have an obligation not to stand on formalities, but to seek to diminish civilian casualties and killings.”
Mr. Alston – who visited Helmand, Kabul, Kandahar, Kunar, Nangarhar, Jowjzan and Parwan provinces on his trip – also said the clear message he received during his many meetings was that neither the Government nor the international community were fulfilling their responsibility to protect Afghans’ right to life.
In particular, police members had carried out killings with impunity because the justice system did not hold them to account, with some observers suggesting that stability should take precedence over human rights.
“The police are the face of the Government. If they serve and protect the people, the Government will have legitimacy. If they extort, intimidate and kill, the Government will have no legitimacy.”
Although international military forces in Afghanistan have made real efforts to respect international human rights and humanitarian law, they had nevertheless reportedly killed as many as 200 civilians this year during joint operations with Afghan security forces.
“For all their efforts to abide by international law, the international forces have so far not succeeded in establishing a system which is both transparent and accountable. The international forces need to rise above the maze of overlapping mandates and multiple national systems of military justice and focus on the larger picture.”
He called for all the international forces in Afghanistan to make sure that ordinary people could go to military bases and get information on civilian casualties.
“When ordinary people make huge efforts to find out who conducted the raid or air strike that killed their loved one, to discover whether an investigation ever took place, or to ascertain whether anyone was prosecuted, they often come away empty-handed, frustrated and bitter. This is counter-productive and must end.”
Mr. Alston, who reports to the UN Human Rights Council, serves in an independent and unpaid capacity. During his visit to Afghanistan he spoke with senior Government officials, diplomats, international military commanders, community leaders, elders, victims, witnesses and members of civil society.