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Civilian casualties surged after peace talks began in Afghanistan – UN report

GENEVA/KABUL (23 February 2021) – Monitoring by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, and the UN Human Rights Office has revealed that despite a drop in civilians killed and injured overall in 2020 there was a rise in civilian casualties following the start of peace negotiations in September.

The Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Annual Report 2020 documents the appalling level of harm inflicted on civilians and traces the disturbing spike in violence against them in the last quarter of the year.

"Afghanistan remains among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian. I am particularly appalled by the high numbers of human rights defenders, journalists, and media workers killed since peace negotiations began in September," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

"This report shows the acute, lasting needs of victims of the armed conflict and demonstrates how much remains to be done to meet those needs in a meaningful way. The violence that has brought so much pain and suffering to the Afghan population for decades must stop and steps towards reaching a lasting peace must continue," she added.

The overall number of civilian casualties in 2020 – some 8,820 (3,035 killed and 5,785 injured) – fell below 10,000 for the first time since 2013 and was 15 per cent down on figures for 2019. However, the number killed stayed above 3,000 for the seventh consecutive year.

October represented the highest monthly number of civilian casualties in 2020, with targeted killings of civilians continuing through to the end of the year and beyond. Victims included media workers, civil society activists, members of the judiciary and the government administration, as well as relatives of members of the security forces.

The Afghan conflict continues to wreak a shocking and detrimental toll on women and children, who accounted for 43 per cent of all civilian casualties – 30 per cent children and 13 per cent women.

The UN has consistently called for a humanitarian ceasefire as the best way to protect civilians from harm. Parties refusing to consider a ceasefire must recognise the devastating consequences their stance has on the lives of Afghan civilians.

With the conflict continuing, parties must do more to prevent and mitigate civilian casualties, including by implementing the report's recommendations and by ensuring the respect and protection of human rights is fundamental to the ongoing peace negotiations. The report also reminds the parties that attacks deliberately targeting civilians or civilian objects are serious violations of international humanitarian law that may amount to war crimes.

The overall drop in civilian casualties was due to fewer civilian casualties from mass casualty suicide attacks by Anti-Government Elements (AGEs) in populated areas, and to a stark drop in civilian casualties attributed to international military forces. In 2020, this figure was 120 civilian casualties.

However, what may otherwise have been significant progress in reducing harm to civilians was undermined by a worrying rise in civilian casualties as a result of targeted killings by AGEs, which were up some 45 per cent on 2019; the use of pressure-plate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban; air strikes by the Afghan Air Force, and ground engagements.

AGEs caused the majority of civilian casualties in 2020 (62 per cent, totalling 5,459 civilian casualties - 1,885 killed and 3,574 injured). Of these, the Taliban was responsible for 45per cent of all casualties, Islamic State in the Levant-Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) for 8 per cent – and the remainder were attributed to undetermined AGEs.

Pro-Government Forces were responsible for a quarter of all civilian casualties, totalling 2,231 civilian casualties (841 killed and 1,390 injured). The Afghan national security forces were responsible for 22 per cent of all civilian casualties).

Causes of civilian casualties in 2020 and in relation to 2019:

- Ground engagements were the leading cause – 36 per cent, with 872 killed and 2,282 injured. A slight increase on 2019.

- AGE suicide and non-suicide attacks using IEDS – 34.5 percent, with 872 killed and 2,170 injured. This represented a 30 per cent decrease.

- AGE targeted killings – 14 per cent, with 707 killed and 541 injured. These were up by 45 per cent on 2019.

- Airstrikes by Pro-Government Forces (PGF) – 8 per cent, with 341 killed and 352 injured. This reflects a decrease of 34 per cent.

To read the full report: https://unama.unmissions.org/protection-of-civilians-reports


For more information and media requests, please contact:

Ravina Shamdasani - + 41 22 917 9169 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org or

Rupert Colville + 41 22 917 9767 / rcolville@ohchr.org or

Liz Throssell + 41 22 917 9296 / ethrossell@ohchr.org

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