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Ahead of Council meeting, UN envoy highlights rise in Afghan civilian casualties

11 June 2013 – Ahead of next week’s Security Council meeting on Afghanistan, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in the country, Ján Kubiš, highlighted that the security environment for Afghan civilians has worsened this year, with a 24 per cent rise in the number of civilians killed and injured compared to the same time period in 2012.

“I have to note, with regret that… the situation of civilians in the country and conflict-related civilian casualties is, indeed, not going in the right direction. On the contrary, the situation has worsened,” Mr. Kubiš said at a news conference in the capital, Kabul.

The protection of civilians is a key area of work for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which Mr. Kubiš heads. Other topics covered in the hour-long media encounter included preparations for the 2014 presidential election and the ongoing transition of security responsibilities from international to Afghan forces.

According to UNAMA data, which Mr. Kubiš cited, 3,092 civilians were killed or wounded in the Afghan conflict between 1 January and 6 June this year. Children accounted for 21 per cent of all civilian casualties, a figure that Mr. Kubiš said was “unacceptable.”

“Targeting civilians is a punishable crime and people that are targeting civilians will be punished for this. And I cannot understand this, from another perspective, where is the honour in targeting civilians? What kind of bravery – in quotation marks – is this targeting of civilians, killing unarmed people that are working for the people of this country?” the UN envoy said. “I have said it several times, maybe wrongly: when you have to fight, fight. Fight the fighters. Don’t kill civilians.”

Mr. Kubiš noted that anti-government forces were responsible for 74 per cent of the civilian deaths and injuries in the 1 January-6 June period, while pro-government forces were responsible for nine per cent.

The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by anti-government elements was responsible for 41 per cent of civilian casualties in the time period, said Mr. Kubis. In a report last year, UNAMA stated that the “indiscriminate and unlawful use” of IEDs by insurgents remained the single biggest killer of civilians in Afghanistan.

Mr. Kubis reported that the number of civilians affected by targeted killings carried out by anti-government elements rose by 42 per cent from last year, with 2012 having experienced a record number of casualties in this manner.

“All that shows a continued, strong disregard for civilians by the insurgency; all that shows a continued, strong disregard for the rule of law, for the international human rights and humanitarian norms that regulate how parties should engage and behave in armed conflicts,” the Special Representative said, while also welcoming a 24 per cent decrease in the number of civilians killed in suicide attacks.

Photo: Fardin Waezi / UNAMA

A fuller accounting of casualties during the first six months of 2013 is expected to be released in a UNAMA report in July.

Mr. Kubis flagged other alarming trends, including direct attacks against humanitarian organizations, such as the ones carried out against the offices of the International Organization for Migration in Kabul, on 24 May, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, in the eastern city of Jalalabad, on 29 May.

Any attack on humanitarian organizations is “a direct attack on the civilians” as they are helping the people suffering from war, the envoy stated.

“Those that are attacking them are committing crimes and they will be brought to justice, either now or later, but they will be brought to justice,” he said. “I would like to remind that any attack on medical or humanitarian workers, and on civilians, is strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law.”

He also reported that UNAMA has received from the Taliban, the main anti-government force in Afghanistan, “signals about their willingness and readiness” to discuss ways to protect civilians in the Afghan conflict, amongst other topics.

“I welcome this,” Mr. Kubiš added. “Now we are discussing modalities. I hope we will start this dialogue sooner rather than later.”

This rise in civilian casualties comes as the country’s security forces assume full responsibility from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is due to end its combat mission by the end of 2014.

Discussing the responses to a series of recent, complex attacks, Mr. Kubiš said he clearly saw an “increased competence and confidence” by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

“The Afghan National Security Forces are showing the increased courage, capability and ability to counter this kind of tension of the insurgency. But they do need continued support. What is also important is to ensure there is a sustained, long-term, continued support of the broader international community for the needs of the ANSF after 2014,” he said.

Photo: Fardin Waezi / UNAMA

Afghanistan’s security transition is coinciding with a political transition. The country is scheduled to hold a presidential election in April next year, marking an end to the second term of the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai. In 2015, Afghanistan is due to hold elections for the National Assembly (‘Wolesi Jirga’).

At today’s news conference, the UN envoy stressed the need for an “orderly, transparent” political transition, done through “the process of election.”

“To be able to deliver a good, transparent, inclusive, acceptable election, there must be a solid and robust electoral architecture. All the necessary preparatory steps must be taken in good time,” he noted. “Therefore, it is crucial that the legislature, that the Parliament – the Wolesi Jirga and the Meshrano Jirga [Senate] – at this point in time, do their best to finalize the process of endorsing the two pieces of legislations that are crucial for having good, transparent, inclusive and acceptable elections.”

Mr. Kubiš called yesterday’s passage, by the Wolesi Jirga, of a law governing the structure and duties of the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC) a sign of “political maturity.”

“Now, I hope that the Meshrano Jirga will also show the same degree of political maturity and will, when discussing and eventually approving, hopefully in the coming period and soon, the two drafts that are there for their consideration – both the IEC structure law and the elections law,” he said.

The Special Representative has previously stressed in the past that a credible election is critical to Afghanistan’s stability and continued international support.

The core of UNAMA’s mission, which was renewed for another year by the UN Security Council in March and is based on requests for assistance from Afghan authorities, include support for several key political goals, including elections and peace and reconciliation.

The Council is expected to discuss Afghanistan on Thursday, 20 June.

Click here for transcript of the UNAMA press conference in Kabul

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