Populations in Afghanistan remain at risk of mass atrocity crimes as the Taliban continues its armed conflict with the government. Other armed extremist groups also threaten civilians.
Since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization 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. The UN Refugee Agency reported that 2.1 million people are currently internally displaced and 2.7 million Afghans are refugees – the second largest refugee population in the world.
Despite the finalization of a peace agreement between the United States (US) and the Taliban on 29 February 2020, as well as the commencement of intra-Afghan talks on 12 September, the Taliban have continued their military campaign against the Afghan government. Since the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, civilian casualties have increased by 38 percent. Ongoing violence in Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz and Uruzgan provinces has killed or maimed hundreds of civilians. The 1 May 2021 withdrawal date for the estimated 3,500 remaining US troops in Afghanistan has been delayed by US President Joe Biden until 11 September. After warning that a delayed withdrawal would result in increased attacks on both Afghan and US forces, the Taliban launched a renewed offensive in Helmand province shortly after 1 May.
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have frequently been used to target civil servants, journalists, professional women, human rights defenders and politicians. Over 350 civilian casualties were caused by IEDs during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Taliban has been blamed for most of the attacks, although they deny responsibility. The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) have claimed responsibility for some attacks on media workers, minority populations and other civilians.
Many attacks also target members of ethnic and religious minority communities. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, at least 115 civilians were killed or maimed in attacks targeting places of worship during 2020. An unclaimed bomb attack on a high school in Dasht-e-Barchi, a predominantly Hazara neighborhood in Kabul, killed 85 civilians, including many schoolgirls.
According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 1,783 civilians have been killed or maimed so far in 2021. The number of women killed and injured increased by 37 percent and child casualties increased by 23 percent compared to the first quarter of 2020. UNAMA has attributed 45 percent of the 8,820 civilian casualties in 2020 to the Taliban, 8 percent to ISIL-K and 22 percent to Afghan security forces.
Although international forces have begun withdrawing their troops and intra-Afghan negotiations continue, progress towards implementing other elements of the US-Taliban agreement has been minimal. The agreement includes guarantees to prevent the use of Afghan territory by terrorist groups and a permanent ceasefire. However, the Taliban has reportedly not broken ties with al-Qaeda and attacks continue.
During nearly two decades of war the Taliban, government troops and some international forces have violated International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The US-Taliban agreement and the start of intra-Afghan talks are welcome steps towards ending the war, but Afghanistan remains one of the deadliest conflicts in the world for civilians.
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. Civilians in Taliban-controlled areas also suffer widespread human rights abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers, torture and extrajudicial killings.
The threat of further war crimes and crimes against humanity will remain until a comprehensive ceasefire is fully implemented and the protection of civilians is prioritized by all sides. Attacks targeting minority populations and human rights defenders will continue until sustained action is taken to end impunity, security is improved and local governance is enhanced.
The Afghan government needs ongoing international support to uphold its responsibility to protect.
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 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 4 April 2021 US President Biden rescinded sanctions imposed by the previous US administration targeting Chief Prosecutor Bensouda and the Head of the ICC’s Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division, Phakiso Mochochoko, in retaliation for investigating possible war crimes perpetrated by US troops and intelligence officials in Afghanistan.
On 6 November Australia’s Inspector-General concluded a special inquiry into alleged war crimes perpetrated by Australian special forces in Afghanistan between 2009-2013. Potential prosecutions are pending.
The UN and the governments of Turkey and Qatar plan to convene a high-level peace conference in Istanbul in order to accelerate the stalled intra-Afghan negotiations.
All parties to the conflict should help create an environment conducive for intra-Afghan negotiations by committing to a comprehensive ceasefire. Afghan security forces and all international military forces must ensure the protection of civilians and strictly adhere to IHL and International Human Rights Law. International forces should increase efforts to ensure the security of vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities.
Intra-Afghan talks should include meaningful representation of women, ethnic and religious minorities and civil society. Avenues for justice and the rights of victims should also be prioritized. 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.