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 threatening 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 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. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that the level of violence leading up to the September negotiations was among the highest in the past five years. According to UNAMA, over 6,000 civilians were killed or injured from January to October 2020, with children comprising 31 percent of all civilian casualties.
Violence remained high in Nangarhar and Kunduz provinces following the start of talks in September. Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces, government airstrikes and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) caused more than 400 civilian casualties in October alone. 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 and Uruzgan provinces has killed or injured hundreds of civilians. At the end of November a deadly increase in rocket attacks and IEDs in Kabul – many of which have been claimed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) – also resulted in dozens of civilian deaths. Many attacks have targeted civil servants, journalists, human rights defenders and politicians.
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 have 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.
Civilians in Taliban-controlled areas suffer widespread human rights abuses, including the 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.
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. 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.
Meanwhile, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, at least 170 civilians have been killed in attacks targeting places of worship since October 2019. UNAMA also verified at least 18 attacks deliberately targeting religious leaders in 2020. ISIL-K has been implicated in many of these incidents and other attacks targeting minority populations. On 25 October ISIL-K perpetrated a suicide bombing on Kawsar-e Danish education center in a predominantly ethnic Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 25 civilians.
During nearly two decades of war, the Taliban, government troops and some international forces have all violated International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The US-Taliban agreement and the start of intra-Afghan talks are welcome steps towards ending the war, but violence continues. 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. Insecurity will endure unless sustained action is taken to end impunity and improve 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 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. 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. 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 states have expressed concern regarding this US policy.
On 6 November the Australian Inspector-General concluded a special inquiry into the conduct of Australian special forces in Afghanistan. The inquiry highlighted alleged war crimes, including unlawful killings of Afghan prisoners and civilians, perpetrated between 2009-2013. The Australian Defence Force is taking steps to dismiss the individuals involved and 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 committed in Afghanistan, regardless of the position, nationality or affiliation of the alleged perpetrator.