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Press releases Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

New UN figures show sharp rise in Afghan civilian casualties

16 September 2008

16 September 2008

GENEVA -- UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed serious concern Tuesday as new figures released by her office showed a sharp increase in the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan during the first eight months of 2008 compared to the same period the previous year.

The number of killings by the Taliban and other anti-government forces almost doubled by comparison with the first eight months of 2007, with the numbers killed by government and international military forces also increasing substantially.

The human rights team attached to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded a total of 1,445 civilian casualties in the first eight months of 2008, an increase of 39 percent compared to the same period in 2007, when there were 1,040 conflict-related deaths.

August was a particularly deadly month, with 330 civilians killed, including up to 92 civilian deaths reported during an operation involving Afghan and international military forces in Shindand, in the west of the country, as well as the killing of four NGO workers, including three women, by the Taliban on 13 August, in Logar province, south of the capital Kabul.

“This is the highest number of civilian deaths to occur in a single month since the end of major hostilities and the ousting of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001,” Pillay noted.

Exactly 800 killings – or 55 percent of the total number of civilian deaths recorded in the first eight months of 2008 – are attributed to the Taliban and other insurgent forces, almost double the 462 deaths for which they were held responsible in the corresponding period in 2007.

Suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices, used extensively by the armed opposition, were the cause of 551 civilian deaths, or 38 percent of the overall total number of civilians killed since the beginning of the year. In addition, UNAMA has recorded 142 summary executions carried out by the Taliban and their allies so far in 2008, and dozens of cases of threats, intimidation, and harassment.

“There is substantial evidence indicating that the Taliban are carrying out a systematic campaign of intimidation and violence aimed at Afghan civilians they believe to be supportive of the Government, the international community, and military forces,” Pillay said.

Pro-government forces are reported to have been responsible for 577 civilian deaths in the first eight months of 2008 during military operations, up from 477 during the same period last year. Responsibility for a further 68 casualties, including a number of cross-fire incidents, was not clear.

According to the statistics compiled by UNAMA, 395 civilians were killed in operations involving air strikes during the first eight months of 2008 – over two-thirds of the total number of casualties inflicted by pro-government forces.

The most high-profile incidents include an air strike on a wedding party in Nangahar province on 6 July, that resulted in the death of 47 civilians, including 30 children – as well as the 22 August Shindand event, which is believed to have resulted in the deaths of up to 62 children.

“There is an urgent need for better coordination between Afghan and international military forces to enhance the protection of civilians and the safety and welfare of war-affected communities,” Pillay said. “I call on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law, and to ensure every effort is made to avoid the killing of civilians. The Taliban and other insurgent groups must desist from practices that result in huge and indiscriminate loss of life. Efforts must also be made to hold such groups to account. There is a long history of impunity in Afghanistan – and that needs to change.”

“It is also imperative that there is greater transparency in accountability procedures for international forces involved in incidents that cause civilian casualties,” she said, adding that there should also be a rapid and independent assessment of damages and a fair and consistent system of condolence payments to survivors and relatives of victims.

The High Commissioner also expressed concern at the continued reduction in humanitarian space, as large swathes of Afghanistan have become increasingly off-limits to aid organizations whose staff have been subjected to direct attacks, threats and intimidation. On Sunday, in the latest such episode, two doctors working under contract with the World Health Organization (WHO) were killed, along with their UNAMA driver, by a suicide bomber in the border town of Spin Boldak, bringing the total number of aid workers killed so far in 2008 to over 30.

“Targeted attacks on aid workers are not only atrocious in themselves,” said Pillay, “they also have far-reaching negative consequences on the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population.” In addition to the civilian deaths and injuries caused directly by the conflict, Afghans are continuing to face displacement, destruction of property and other assets, as well as disruption to healthcare, education, housing and other essential services.

The full statistical bulletin, entitled “Armed Conflict and Civilian Casualties, Afghanistan Trends and Developments,
1 January -31 August 2008” can be found here...