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. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (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. 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 US and the Taliban finalizing a peace agreement on 29 February, the Taliban resumed their military campaign against the Afghan government. The Taliban carried out 76 attacks across 24 provinces in the week following the agreement, prompting the US to resume airstrikes. UNAMA has reported a dramatic increase in civilian casualties and disregard for international law, documenting over 800 civilian casualties caused by deliberate attacks in the first half of 2020. 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 (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March. 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.
The US-Taliban 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. Progress in implementation has been minimal. The UN Security Council (UNSC) Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team reported on 27 May that the Taliban has not broken ties with al-Qaeda. The Taliban, meanwhile, have argued that the agreement is already at a breaking point, citing ongoing US drone strikes and the Afghan government stalling on some prisoner releases. Abdullah Abdullah, appointed as head of the High Council for National Reconciliation following a power-sharing deal with President Ghani, has indicated the government’s readiness to start negotiations with the Taliban.
During a pause in the US-Taliban negotiations, UNAMA reported that there were more civilian casualties between 1 July and 30 September 2019 than in any other three-month period during the past ten years, with 1,174 civilians killed and 3,139 wounded. This brought the number of civilian casualties to more than 10,000 for the sixth year in a row. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction also reported that the Taliban carried out 8,204 attacks in the final quarter of 2019 – the highest tally recorded since 2010. According to the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict, Afghanistan was the deadliest conflict in the world for children in 2019, with over 870 killed.
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) has also increased its operations in Afghanistan, often targeting minority populations. On 25 March ISIL-K attacked the Dharamshala Sikh Temple in Kabul, killing at least 25 civilians. ISIL-K perpetrated a suicide bombing at a funeral in Nangarhar province on 12 May, killing 32 civilians. That same day unidentified armed assailants attacked a maternity hospital in a predominantly ethnic Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing at least 24 people.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, 2.1 million people are internally displaced and 2.7 million Afghans are refugees – the second largest refugee population in the world.
During their 18-year war, the Taliban, government troops and some international forces have shown blatant disregard for International Humanitarian Law (IHL). In addition to fighting to expand territorial control, the Taliban have continued to attack civilians in urban areas. Unless sustained action is taken to improve local governance, conflict and insecurity will endure.
The US-Taliban agreement is a welcome step towards ending the war. However, the threat of further war crimes and crimes against humanity remains until a comprehensive ceasefire is fully implemented. The recent increase in civilian casualties, attacks on healthcare facilities and places of worship, and use of explosives and airstrikes in civilian-populated areas, all demonstrate a deterioration of respect for international law.
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 in line with the US-Taliban agreement, with approximately 8,600 troops remaining in the country. Some other NATO member states are also considering withdrawing their forces.
During November 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 Chief Prosecutor’s request, on 5 March 2020 the Appeals Chamber allowed the investigation to proceed. On 11 June the US government authorized sanctions against ICC staff involved in investigating possible war crimes perpetrated by US troops and intelligence officials in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The UN Secretary-General, UN Office of the 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 the sanctions.
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. Promoting good governance and the rule of law and protecting human rights remain essential to establishing lasting peace and security.
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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