Populations in Afghanistan are at ongoing risk of mass atrocity crimes as the Taliban continues its armed conflict with the government. Other armed extremist groups are also increasing their attacks on civilians.
Since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) coalition of military forces, they have conducted an insurgency against the internationally recognized Afghan government. Following the 2014 withdrawal of most foreign forces, the Taliban have made substantial military gains, currently controlling or influencing more than half the country. Despite the United States (US) and the Taliban finalizing a peace agreement on 29 February, the Taliban have continued their military campaign against the government. The Taliban carried out 76 attacks across 24 provinces in the week following the agreement, prompting the US to resume airstrikes. On 13 May President Ashraf Ghani ordered the resumption of offensive military operations against the Taliban in response to their ongoing attacks in civilian areas.
During the first half of 2020 the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded a dramatic increase in civilian casualties, documenting over 3,458 civilians killed or injured. According to UNAMA, 45 percent of these casualties were caused by direct targeting or the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Taliban attacks and armed confrontations with government forces caused more than 140 civilian deaths in August. UNAMA has also reported 12 deliberate attacks on healthcare personnel and facilities – eight by the Taliban and three by Afghan national security forces – since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March.
The UN Refugee Agency has reported that 2.1 million people are internally displaced and 2.7 million Afghans are refugees – the second largest refugee population in the world. According to UNAMA, there were more than 10,000 civilian casualties per year from 2014-2019. The UN Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict noted that Afghanistan was the deadliest conflict in the world for children in 2019, with over 870 killed.
Progress in implementing the US-Taliban agreement has been minimal. The agreement includes guarantees to prevent the use of Afghan territory by terrorist groups, a timeline for withdrawal of all international forces, creation of conditions for intra-Afghan negotiations, and a permanent ceasefire. The UN Security Council’s (UNSC) Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team reported on 27 May that the Taliban has not broken ties with al-Qaeda. After months of delayed prisoner releases – a condition included in the agreement – direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government began for the first time on 12 September in Doha, Qatar.
UNAMA has reported that civilians in Taliban-controlled areas suffer widespread human rights abuses, including recruitment of child soldiers and extrajudicial killings. According to the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Taliban have potentially committed crimes against humanity and war crimes while Afghan security forces and members of the US military may have also committed war crimes, including the torture of detainees and summary executions.
Meanwhile, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, at least 170 civilians have been killed in 17 attacks targeting places of worship since October 2019. UNAMA has also verified at least 18 attacks deliberately targeting religious leaders in Afghanistan this year. The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) has been implicated in many of these incidents and other attacks targeting minority populations. On 25 March ISIL-K attacked the Dharamshala Sikh Temple in Kabul, killing at least 25 civilians. ISIL-K also perpetrated a suicide bombing at a funeral in Nangarhar province on 12 May, killing 32 civilians. That same day unidentified assailants attacked a maternity hospital in a predominantly ethnic Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing at least 24 people.
During their 18-year war, the Taliban, government troops and some international forces have all shown blatant disregard for International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Conflict and insecurity will endure unless sustained action is taken to end impunity and improve local governance.
The US-Taliban agreement is a welcome step towards ending the war. However, attacks on healthcare facilities and places of worship and the use of indiscriminate weapons in civilian-populated areas continue. The threat of further war crimes and crimes against humanity remains until a comprehensive ceasefire is fully implemented.
The Afghan government needs ongoing international support to uphold its responsibility to protect.
Since 2011 the UNSC has imposed an arms embargo and sanctions on individuals or entities who support the Taliban and its affiliates. On 10 March the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2513, welcoming the US-Taliban agreement.
US troops began leaving Afghanistan during March 2020 in line with the US-Taliban agreement, but approximately 8,600 troops still remain in the country. Some other NATO member states are also considering withdrawing their forces.
During 2017 the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, requested authorization to proceed with an investigation into alleged crimes committed in Afghanistan since May 2003. Despite the Court initially rejecting the request, on 5 March 2020 the Appeals Chamber allowed the investigation to proceed.
On 2 September the US government imposed economic sanctions against the Chief Prosecutor and the Court’s Head of Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division, Phakiso Mochochoko. These sanctions were in retaliation for ICC staff investigating possible war crimes perpetrated by US troops and intelligence officials in Afghanistan. The UN Secretary-General, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, over 30 UN independent human rights experts, and a cross-regional group of 67 ICC member states have all expressed concern regarding this US policy.
All parties to the conflict should help create an environment conducive for intra-Afghan negotiations by implementing a comprehensive ceasefire. Intra-Afghan talks must include meaningful representation of women, ethnic and religious minorities, and civil society.
Afghan security forces and all international military forces must prioritize the protection of civilians and strictly adhere to IHL and International Human Rights Law. International forces should strengthen protocols to prevent civilian casualties and increase efforts to ensure the security of vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities.
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. States Parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC should defend the Court against attacks targeting its staff.
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