UN to track civilian casualties more closely

The increasing number of civilian causalities in the armed conflict in Afghanistan has prompted the UN to set up a database of information on non-combatants affected by the insurgency.

“The database will be similar to the one already used by the UN in Iraq,” Javier Leon Diaz, a UN human rights expert in Afghanistan, told IRIN on Monday.

In the first four months of 2007 alone, up to 380 civilians were killed in military operations by all sides in Afghanistan, the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) said.

Monitoring the situation of non-combatants in volatile parts of Afghanistan is a very difficult and complex exercise, according to UN officials.

“Although we have seen more military operations this year yet our efforts to count and verify figures have been restricted by a complex environment and we have found it very difficult to be accurate,” conceded Richard Bennett, UNAMA head of the human rights division.

The UN’s belated civilian casualty database will be developed by the High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva, but will be regularly updated by UNAMA in Kabul.

“It is still unclear whether the database will be available for public use, but it will help the UN to verify the very confusing pieces of information about the situation of Afghan civilians in the current conflict,” Diaz said.

Who is to blame?

The UN has blamed Taliban insurgents for violating international humanitarian law (IHL) in their fight against Afghan and international forces and says it is concerned about the growing number of civilians affected in the ongoing armed conflict.

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has, meanwhile, accused US Special Forces of breaching IHL in one incident on 4 March, in which more than 12 civilians were shot dead in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

US forces publicly conceded the use of indiscriminate force in the Nangarhar incident and apologised for the harm inflicted on Afghan civilians.

However, US officials have blamed the Taliban for civilian causalities in Afghanistan. They say the Taliban use non-combatants as shields in their attacks on Afghan and international forces and choose to fight from civilian locations.

IRIN asked Diaz whether such a justification was acceptable: “Unfortunately, civilian casualties are unavoidable in conflicts,” said Diaz.

Diaz told IRIN that civilian causalities would be justifiable if soldiers opened fire in self-defence and/or if the force used was proportionate to the military objective.

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