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Number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan exceeds 10,000 for the sixth year in a row

More than 10,000 civilians in Afghanistan were killed and injured last year, according to a new United Nations report that details record-high levels of civilian harm in the ongoing conflict. The report, entitled Afghanistan Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: 2019, documents 3,403 civilians killed and 6,989 injured – with the majority of the civilian casualties inflicted by anti-Government elements. It is the sixth year in a row that the number of civilian casualties has exceeded 10,000.

“Almost no civilian in Afghanistan has escaped being personally affected in some way by the ongoing violence,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said in a statement.

The report comes as the US and Taliban’s seven-day “reduction of violence” went into effect on 22 February in Afghanistan. US General Austin “Scott” Miller told reporters in Kabul that “our operations are defensive at this point. We stopped our offensive operations as part of our obligations, but we remain committed to defend our forces.” The week-long reduction in violence is a precondition to a US-Taliban peace deal that both parties have said they plan to sign at the end of the month.

Who is responsible?

Among the more than 3,400 civilians killed and nearly 7,000 injured last year, the Taliban was the single group responsible for the largest share of casualties, at 47%, and more than 1,300 deaths. It was followed by the Afghan national security forces, at 16% and 680 deaths, according to the report. International forces, including the US, were responsible for 8% of the civilian casualties with 559 deaths. The number of casualties attributed to a branch of Islamic State dropped steeply from the previous year, from 2,181 casualties in 2018 to 1,223 in 2019.

“It is absolutely imperative for all parties to seize the moment to stop the fighting, as peace is long overdue; civilian lives must be protected and efforts for peace are underway”, stressed Mr. Yamamoto.

Record high levels of casualties from airstrikes

Last year saw record high levels of civilian casualties from airstrikes, killing and injuring more than 1,000, most of which were attributed to international military forces. UNAMA says it’s concerned about the high potential for error in airstrikes. In one case, a US drone strike aimed at militants killed 32 pine nut harvesters in September in the eastern province of Nangarhar, as reported by Reuters.

Improvised explosive devices were the method used in 42 percent of the casualties. The UN said anti-government forces, including the Taliban and Islamic State, continued to use IEDs at “extreme levels,” killing 885 people and injuring almost 3,500 in 2019.

Children at risk

Thirty percent of the casualties were children, the report says, and the Taliban, Afghan national security forces and pro-government armed groups continued to recruit and use children. It noted that the Taliban took “positive steps” investigating allegations of recruitment of children by their commanders last year. UNAMA also says it continues to receive reports of a form of sexual exploitation of boys called bacha bazi despite its outlaw, and that the offense is mainly committed by Afghan national security forces.

In December 2019, UNICEF described Afghanistan as “the world’s most lethal warzone” as an average of nine children were killed or maimed every day in Afghanistan in 2019.

“All parties to the conflict must comply with the key principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution to prevent civilian casualties,” said Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

To ensure accountability, the report calls on all conflict parties to conduct prompt, effective and transparent investigations into all allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

“Belligerents must take the necessary measures to prevent women, men, boys and girls from being killed by bombs, shells, rockets and improvised mines; to do otherwise is unacceptable”, concluded the High Commissioner.

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