Civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose by 14 per cent last year, according to a new report released on Saturday by the United Nations, which also found that it was the worst year since 2009 in terms of the number of women and children killed or injured as a result of conflict-related violence.
The 2013 Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, produced by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), recorded a total of 8,615 civilian casualties with 2,959 civilian deaths and 5,656 injured last year.
The figures mark a 7 per cent increase in deaths and a 17 per cent increase in injuries as compared to 2012, the Mission said in a news release. Since 2009, the armed conflict has claimed the lives of 14,064 Afghan civilians and injured thousands more.
“Armed conflict took an unrelenting toll on Afghan civilians in 2013,” said the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, Ján Kubiš.
Presenting the report at a news conference in the capital, Kabul, he added that the “overwhelming majority” of civilian deaths are due to actions of anti-Government elements, including, but not limited to, the Taliban. There are also more civilians being killed and injured as a result of direct engagement between the anti-Government elements and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), he noted.
The report attributed 74 per cent of total civilian deaths and injuries in 2013 to anti-Government elements, 11 per cent to pro-Government forces (eight per cent to ANSF and three per cent to international forces) and 10 per cent to ground engagements between anti-Government elements and pro-Government forces. Five per cent of civilian casualties were unattributed, resulting mostly from explosive remnants of war.
“At the start of 2014, it is imperative that all parties, but particularly anti-Government elements, halt the worsening impact of the conflict on Afghan civilians,” Mr. Kubiš stressed.
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used by anti-Government elements caused 34 per cent of all civilian casualties, according to the report, while ground engagements between parties to conflict caused 27 per cent and suicide and complex attacks by anti-Government elements caused 15 per cent.
The report also found that 2013 was the worst year for Afghan women, girls and boys since 2009 in terms of casualties resulting from conflict-related violence. There were 235 women killed and 511 injured, an increase of 36 per cent from 2012. IEDs used by anti-Government elements were the main cause of deaths while ground engagements accounted for most of the injuries.
UNAMA documented 561 children killed and 1,195 injured in 2013, an increase of 34 per cent compared to the previous year. IEDs caused the most child casualties, killing 192 and injuring another 319, followed by ground engagements.
“It is particularly alarming that the number of Afghan women and children killed and injured in the conflict increased again in 2013,” said the Director of Human Rights for UNAMA, Georgette Gagnon. “It is the awful reality that most women and children were killed and injured in their daily lives – at home, on their way to school, working in the fields or traveling to a social event.
“This situation demands even greater commitment and further efforts by the parties to protect women and children from conflict-related violence.”
UNAMA's report found that anti-Government elements continued to deliberately target civilians across the country and carried out attacks without regard for civilian life, causing 6,374 civilian casualties, including over 2,000 deaths.
Throughout 2013, the Mission noted increased public messaging by the Taliban on civilian casualties. However, the situation on the ground for Afghan civilians did not improve. The Taliban increased their indiscriminate use of IEDs and continued to attack civilians.
UNAMA highlighted that indiscriminate attacks and direct targeted attacks against civilians are strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law which binds all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan including the Taliban. Attacks on civilians and killings of mullahs, elections workers, tribal elders and other civilians not directly participating in hostilities may amount to war crimes.
“Statements on protecting civilians by the Taliban leadership are not nearly enough to end the killing and injuring of innocent Afghan civilians,” said Mr. Kubiš. “What is needed is for the Taliban to stop deliberately attacking civilians and using IEDS indiscriminately, and to change their definition of 'civilian' and lawful targets in line with international humanitarian law.”
UNAMA's report attributed 956 civilian casualties to all pro-Government forces in 2013, up 59 per cent from 2012. This overall rise was linked to increased ground operations with civilian casualties by the ANSF. Of all civilian casualties by pro-Government forces, 57 per cent were attributed to the ANSF, 27 per cent to international military forces and 16 per cent to joint operations.
With Afghan forces leading military operations country wide, UNAMA reinforced the need for improved implementation of directives and rules of engagement mandating civilian protection, and for permanent structures in the Ministries of Defence and Interior to investigate reports of civilian casualties by Afghan forces, initiate remedial measures and take follow-up action.
It also called on the Afghan Government to investigate any allegations of human rights violations by Afghan forces as required under Afghan and international law.
“Behind every civilian casualty is a man, woman or child's life and immense suffering and hardship for an Afghan family and community,” said Ms. Gagnon. “Reduced civilian suffering and fewer civilian casualties together with improvements in human rights protection should be the core benchmarks of improved stability and efforts toward peace in the security and political transition in 2014.”