Populations in Afghanistan remain at risk of further mass atrocity crimes as the Taliban consolidates its rule. Other armed extremist groups also threaten civilians.
Following a military offensive launched by the Taliban in May 2021 – during which they perpetrated acts that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity – on 15 August Taliban forces entered Kabul, effectively overthrowing the Afghan government. In the first two weeks of August the Taliban rapidly overran 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as Afghan government forces quickly capitulated. Negotiations regarding a new Taliban-led government are currently underway between the Taliban, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the former Chairman of the Afghan delegation for peace talks, Abdullah Abdullah.
According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), over 3,750 civilians were killed or maimed between 1 May and 15 August in Taliban attacks and retaliatory airstrikes by the former Afghan government, both of which targeted civilian objects, including homes, schools and medical clinics. Civilians in areas forcibly captured by the Taliban have also faced summary executions, looting and burning of homes and enforced disappearances. OHCHR has received reports indicating a pattern of grave human rights violations against women and girls as previously experienced under Taliban rule, including forced marriage and strict restrictions on freedom of movement.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, between 1 January and 31 July over 546,000 Afghans were newly displaced, 80 percent of whom are women and children. Since the takeover of Kabul, thousands of Afghan civilians have attempted to flee the country amid fears of the consequences of a return to Taliban rule.
When the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization coalition of military forces, they conducted a prolonged insurgency against the internationally recognized Afghan government. During two decades of war the Taliban, government troops and some international forces violated International Humanitarian Law. According to the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Taliban have potentially committed crimes against humanity and war crimes while the former Afghan security forces and members of the United States (US) military may have also committed war crimes, including the torture of detainees and summary executions. Despite the finalization of a peace agreement between the US and the Taliban in February 2020, as well as the commencement of intra-Afghan talks in September 2020, the Taliban escalated their military campaign against the Afghan government. After the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, civilian casualties increased by 50 percent.
From 2009-2019 UNAMA recorded more than 10,000 civilian casualties per year. Over 5,183 civilians were killed or maimed from January-June 2021. Over one-third of civilian casualties this year were the result of improvised explosive devices or targeted killings. Civil servants, journalists, professional women, human rights defenders and the minority Shia Hazara community were the most frequent targets. The Taliban has been blamed for most attacks, but deny responsibility. The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan have claimed responsibility for some attacks, including a 26 August bombing at the airport in Kabul that killed at least 170 Afghan civilians and 13 US troops.
The threat of further war crimes and crimes against humanity has dramatically escalated since the Taliban takeover. Vulnerable populations, including women, minorities, journalists, civil servants, those affiliated with the former Afghan government, and anyone who previously worked for or with foreign governments, are at high risk of retaliatory attacks.
For months UN officials and Afghan civil society issued unheeded warnings regarding the escalating security crisis in Afghanistan, as an emboldened Taliban – with close ties to al-Qaeda – strengthened their military position.
When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001 populations suffered widespread human rights abuses with women and minorities, particularly the Shia Hazara community, facing systematic persecution. Since then, Afghan civilians have endured a seemingly endless cycle of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Taliban perpetrated widespread abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers, torture and extrajudicial killings.
All parties to the conflict must honor their obligations under international law and uphold their responsibility to protect the people of Afghanistan.
Since 2011 the UN Security Council (UNSC) has imposed an arms embargo and sanctions on individuals or entities who support the Taliban and its affiliates. On 10 March 2020 the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2513, welcoming the US-Taliban agreement.
During 2017 then Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, requested authorization to proceed with an investigation into alleged crimes committed in Afghanistan since May 2003. On 5 March 2020 the Appeals Chamber allowed the investigation to proceed. On 17 August Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan issued a statement reminding parties that the Court may exercise its jurisdiction regarding any acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes committed within Afghanistan.
On 24 August the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution on Afghanistan during an emergency special session, but failed to establish a proposed investigative mechanism.
Since May 2021 the UNSC has held several special sessions and issued two press statements on the Taliban takeover. On 30 August the UNSC adopted Resolution 2593, calling for safe passage of those wishing to leave and unhindered humanitarian access. The resolution also emphasized the importance of upholding human rights, particularly of women and girls.
All parties, including international actors engaging with Taliban representatives, must ensure respect for international law as well as the promotion and protection of human rights for all Afghans. The Taliban must uphold recent public pledges to refrain from reprisals and respect the universal rights of women and girls.
Recognition of a new government in Afghanistan must be contingent upon respect for human rights, severance of all terrorism ties and adherence to Afghanistan’s international treaty obligations. The vital work of UNAMA and all human rights and humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan must be safeguarded. The Taliban have a responsibility to ensure the safety of all humanitarian workers.
The UNSC and HRC must act to safeguard the human rights and humanitarian needs of the Afghan people. Foreign governments must take every necessary step to ensure safe passage out of Afghanistan of civilians at risk of being targeted by the Taliban, including by welcoming asylum seekers. The international community should continue to pursue international justice for war crimes committed in Afghanistan, regardless of the position, nationality or affiliation of the alleged perpetrator.