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UNAMA’s Civilians in Armed Conflict in Afghanistan 2020 – report

The first-ever peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban coincided with a rising number of civilian deaths in the last quarter of 2020, latest data shows.

Over 3,000 people died and over 5,000 were injured last year in Afghanistan despite these potential moves towards peace. Women and children represented nearly half (43%) of the civilian casualties. 

Credit: UNAMA

These were the findings of the latest United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. It is the 14th such report released since UNAMA was founded in March 2002, shortly following the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, with the mandate to work with and support the Afghan government. 

The report was written in conjunction with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and covers the period between 1st January 2020 and 31st December 2020. Data was gathered from a variety of sources, including interviews, footage, and third-party accounts.

Credit: UNAMA

There has been conflict in Afghanistan in varying forms for over forty years. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it carried on into 2020 between anti-government elements (including the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province) and pro-government forces (the army, pro-government militias, and international forces). 

In particular, 2020 was marked by: 

  • a bilateral agreement between the Taliban and US forces in February; 
  • temporary ceasefires during the Eid al-Fitr (May 24th – 26th) and Eid al-Adha (July 31st – August 2nd) holidays;
  • and the formal commencement of the Afghan Peace Talks in Doha in September. 

Unfortunately, civilian casualties remained high and rose alarmingly in the last quarter of the year after the peace talks started.

Over the course of the year, a total of 8,820 civilians became casualties of the conflict. 3,035 people were killed and 5,785 were injured. 

Credit: UNAMA

This was a significantly greater number than both the 902 civilians killed in Iraq and the 1,528 civilians killed in Syria in 2020. Due to its methodology, UNAMA believes that these figures are conservative estimates – the true number will likely never be known.

The main findings of the report are as follows:

  • 2020 is the first year since 2013 in which the casualty count fell below 10,000 – however reduced levels of harm were reversed by an increase in violence in the last quarter of the year. There were 45% more casualties in that last quarter than in the same period in 2019.
  • Anti-government elements were responsible for 62% of casualties whilst pro-government forces were responsible for 25%.
  • Women and children represented 43% of civilian casualties this year – and pro-government forces were responsible for more child deaths than anti-government elements.
  • There was an increase in attacks on hospitals and medical personnel, despite their protected status and the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • There was an increase in casualties caused by targeted killings and non-suicide IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).
  • Ground engagements were responsible for the majority (36%) of civilian casualties, followed by all types of IED (34.5%).
  • In 2020, UNAMA continued to document attacks by anti-government elements that deliberately targeted civilians – those working for the government, in the media, healthcare workers, and human rights defenders amongst them.
  • There was an 85% decrease in casualties caused by international military forces, the lowest since 2009.
  • Only 24% of the victims interviewed for the report had received any form of victim assistance. 

Beyond the numbers, the report uses interview data to highlight the impact of these casualties on victims’ lives, livelihoods and families. The incidents included also demonstrate the effect of explosive weapons in populated areas – in particular, the authors of the report noted that vehicle-borne IEDs are often so packed with explosives that their detonation causes a disproportionate number of civilian casualties. 

In addition, it was found that pro-government use of indirect fire weapons such as artillery shells and mortars were responsible for half of pro-government caused civilian deaths. This was likely exacerbated by the use of civilian homes and infrastructure by anti-government elements which put civilians at unnecessary risk. The report also pointed out that there has been a continuation of parties to the conflict denying or downplaying the levels of civilian harm caused by their operations.

Credit: UNAMA

UNAMA has provided both sides with a list of recommendations that include stopping the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of IEDs and indirect fire, bringing operations into line with international humanitarian law, and creating stronger protections for children. 

It is their hope – and AOAV’s – that both sides can take steps towards reducing civilian harm.

Read the full report here.