The UN mission in Afghanistan has documented attacks by Islamic militants on the Sikh community and other religious minorities in the country and said there were over 3,400 civilian casualties in the war-torn nation in the first half of 2020.
The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict mid-year report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said the first half of 2020 witnessed fluctuating levels of violence impacting civilians in Afghanistan, with the United Nations documenting 3,458 civilian casualties (1,282 killed and 2,176 injured).
"UNAMA also continued to document attacks from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) on religious minorities in Afghanistan, including the Sikh community and the Shi'a Muslim population, most of whom also belong to the Hazara ethnic group," the report said.
The report noted that while the civilian casualty figures of 3,458 represent a 13 per cent decrease as compared to the first six months of 2019, Afghanistan "remains one of the deadliest conflicts in the world for civilians".
In March, heavily armed gunmen and suicide bombers attacked a Sikh gurdwara in the Shor Bazar area in the heart of Afghanistan's capital Kabul, killing at least 25 worshippers and wounding 8 others, in one of the deadliest attacks on the minority community in the country. Authorities said 80 people, including women and children, were rescued from the gurdwara.
ISIL-K chief Aslam Farooqi, a Pakistani national, was the mastermind behind the deadly attack on the prominent gurudwara. In April and May, Afghan special forces conducted a series of countrywide operations that led to the arrest of leaders of the terror group, including Farooqi and his predecessor Zia ul-Haq and other senior members.
The report said there has been no reduction in civilian casualties caused by the Taliban and Afghan national security forces and the main reason for the lower number of civilian casualties is due to a reduction in operations by international military forces and the ISIL-K Province.
At a time when the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban have a historic opportunity to come together at the negotiating table for peace talks, the tragic reality is that the fighting continues inflicting terrible harm to civilians every day, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan and the head of UNAMA Deborah Lyons said.
Lyons urged the parties to pause, to reflect on the chilling incidents and the harm that they are causing to the Afghan people as documented in the report, and to take decisive action to stop the carnage and get to the negotiating table.
Anti-Government Elements (AGEs) continued to be responsible for the majority of civilian casualties, with UNAMA documenting a disturbing increase in civilian casualties attributed to the Taliban from pressure-plate improvised explosive devices, as well as from abductions that led to ill-treatment and summary executions.
A total of 58 per cent civilian casualties were caused by AGE's, with the Taliban responsible for 1,473 (580 killed and 893 injured), representing 43 per cent of the total civilian casualties in the January 1-June 30, 2020 period.
The report noted that civilian casualties attributed to Afghan national security forces increased by 9 per cent, mainly due to airstrikes and the use of indirect fire during ground engagements. Civilian casualties from airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force during the first six months of 2020 have tripled as compared to the same time period in 2019.
Afghan national security forces were responsible for 23% of the total civilian casualties (789 people, 281 killed and 508 injured) in the first half of the year.
UNAMA did not document any civilian casualties attributed to international military forces from active hostilities during the second quarter of 2020.
It said ground engagements remained the leading cause of civilian casualties with two-thirds caused by the use of indirect fire, particularly in civilian-populated areas. The use of IEDs was the second leading cause of civilian casualties, followed by targeted killings.
Women and children continue to be disproportionately affected by the direct and indirect impacts of the armed conflict, comprising more than 40% of the total civilian casualties. During the first six months of the year, the armed conflict caused 397 women casualties (138 killed and 259 injured) and 1,067 child casualties (340 killed and 727 injured).
The report notes that children in Afghanistan are especially vulnerable to recruitment and use by parties to the conflict, including for combat functions, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report also underscores the lasting impact of the armed conflict on civilians. New monitoring by UNAMA shows that victims suffer incalculable harm weeks and months after an incident occurs, including physically, emotionally and psychologically, financially and otherwise, affecting their ability to enjoy a broad range of human rights.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically reduced the ability of victims to recover, making it even more imperative for the parties to the conflict to reduce the violence now and acknowledge and address the needs and rights of the victims.
The experiences, rights and needs of individuals and communities who have been affected by violence must be a central consideration in the upcoming peace talks, said Fiona Frazer, the Chief of Human Rights at UNAMA.