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Civilian deaths

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezDecember 31, 2014

The number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan is to exceed 10,000 in 2014 - the highest since records began. UNAMA's Georgette Gagnon tells DW the figures reflect how civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence.

Afghans carry the coffin of Afghan cameraman Zubair Hatami, who died on Saturday of injuries sustained in a Taliban attack at a French cultural centre, in Kabul December 21, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)
Image: Reuters/O. Sobhani

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose by 19 percent in the first 11 months of 2014 compared to a year earlier, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). More than 3,180 civilians were killed and nearly 6,430 injured by the end of November. The number of casualties involving children increased by 33 percent. Projections indicate that the civilian casualty count will pass 10,000 for the first time in a single year, the highest number since the organization began systematically documenting civilian casualties in 2009.

Many analysts view the latest figures as a worrying sign that the conflict is spreading to more densely populated areas of the South Asian nation.

The UN data comes at a critical time for Afghanistan as NATO recently marked the official end of the military alliance's ISAF mission in the country after almost 13 years of fighting an insurgency. The ISAF combat mission will now transition to a "training and support" mission - numbering some 13,500 soldiers - under NATO leadership starting on January 1.

Georgette Gagnon
Gagnon: 'UNAMA attributed 75 per cent of all civilian casualties in 2014 to attacks and operations carried out by insurgents'Image: picture-alliance/AP

In a DW interview, Georgette Gagnon, the director of UNAMA's human rights unit, talks about what triggered the high number of casualties, who they are attributed to, and what the parties involved in the fighting should do to avoid killing or injuring more civilians.

DW: How would you describe the year 2014 for Afghanistan in terms of civilian casualties?

Georgette Gagnon: 2014 saw increasing numbers of Afghan children, women and men killed and injured in conflict-related violence throughout Afghanistan. Intensified offensives by anti-government elements, new military operations by Afghan National Security Forces, and the increased use of tactics that caused a huge number of civilian casualties - particularly improvised explosive devices and mortar rounds impacting civilian-populated areas - led to the highest number of civilian casualties documented by UNAMA since 2009.

The human cost of the armed conflict in Afghanistan rose in 2014 with civilians continuing to bear the brunt of the fighting and violence.

What were the main causes of these casualties?

Ground engagements between pro-government forces and insurgents, particularly in civilian-populated areas, caused the most civilian casualties (32 percent), a new trend in 2014. In previous years, IEDs used by anti-government elements had consistently been the main cause of civilian casualties. This year, the total number of civilian casualties caused by IEDs continued rising, but they fell second (29 percent) to ground engagements as the main cause of civilian casualties.

Other major causes of civilian casualties were: suicide attacks (11 percent), targeted killings (10 percent) and complex attacks (five percent) by insurgent groups; unexploded ordnance from the current and previous conflicts (four percent); and airstrikes (two percent) and search operations (two percent) conducted by pro-government forces.

Can all of these casualties be attributed to insurgent groups?

UNAMA attributed 75 per cent of all civilian casualties documented in 2014 to attacks and operations carried out by insurgents. Afghan national security forces and international troops caused 11 per cent of all civilian killings. Nine per cent of all civilian deaths and injuries occurred during ground engagements between militants and security forces, in which attribution to a specific party was not possible. They were mostly cross fire incidents.

Which areas of the country were among the most affected?

The southeastern and southern regions of Afghanistan witnessed the highest numbers of civilian casualties with 21 and 20 percent of all civilian casualties respectively. Seventeen percent of all civilian casualties were documented in the eastern region with 15 percent of civilian deaths and injuries occurring in the central region of Afghanistan.

What do you urge the parties involved in the fighting to do?

We regularly make recommendations to all parties to the conflict and urge them to make specific changes in policy and practice to reduce harm to civilian communities. We also frequently call on all parties - particularly the insurgents - to comply with their legal obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and to not attack civilians.

US General John Campbell (4L) lowers the flag of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) during a ceremony marking the end of ISAF's combat mission in Afghanistan at ISAF headquarters in Kabul on December 28, 2014 (Photo: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Gagnon: 'In the current context of transition, UNAMA is increasing its advocacy with all parties to the conflict'Image: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Given these worrying figures, how do you see the issue of violence against civilians developing in 2015 now that NATO's ISAF mission has officially ended?

In the current context of transition, UNAMA is increasing its advocacy with all parties to the conflict to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and prevent civilian casualties. International partners should ensure they follow through and if necessary strengthen their efforts to support and assist the Afghan government in its efforts to protect the country's civilians from the harms of armed conflict.

Georgette Gagnon is director of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan's (UNAMA) Human Rights Unit.