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 (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 Refugee Agency also reported that 2.1 million people are 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. On 11 October the Taliban renewed their offensive in Lashkar Gar, Helmand province, forcing 35,000 civilians to flee. Since then, ongoing violence in Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz and Uruzgan provinces has killed or maimed hundreds of civilians.
Rocket attacks and improvised explosive devices have frequently been used to target civil servants, journalists, human rights defenders and politicians, resulting in dozens of civilian casualties every week. 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 also claimed responsibility for attacks on media workers and other civilians.
According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 8,820 civilians were killed or injured in 2020, with children comprising 30 percent of all civilian casualties. UNAMA has attributed 45 percent of all civilian casualties in 2020 to the Taliban, 8 percent to ISIL-K and 22 percent to Afghan security forces.
Ongoing violence is preventing the delivery of health services to vulnerable communities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. UNAMA has reported 12 deliberate attacks on healthcare personnel and facilities – eight by the Taliban and three by Afghan security forces – since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March 2020.
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 both sides have accused the other of ongoing attacks.
Civilians in Taliban-controlled areas suffer widespread human rights abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers, torture 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 115 civilians were killed or maimed in attacks targeting places of worship in 2020. UNAMA also verified at least 18 attacks targeting religious leaders in 2020. ISIL-K has been implicated in many of these incidents and in other attacks targeting minority populations.
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. Civilian casualties have significantly escalated since the start of intra-Afghan talks last September.
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 endure unless sustained action is taken to end impunity, improve security and enhance local governance.
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.
In line with the agreement’s provisions, approximately 2,500 US troops remain in Afghanistan, with a deadline of 1 May 2021 for a complete withdrawal. However, NATO has warned that the Taliban must do more to meet the terms of the agreement ahead of the deadline. 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 sanctions on Chief Prosecutor Bensouda and the Head of the ICC’s Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division, Phakiso Mochochoko, 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 states all expressed concern regarding this US policy.
On 6 November the Australian Inspector-General concluded a special inquiry into alleged war crimes perpetrated by Australian special forces in Afghanistan between 2009-2013. Potential prosecutions are pending.
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