After recording an encouraging drop in civilian casualties in 2012, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan now fears those gains may be reversing, based on the numbers of deaths and injuries already recorded in the first six months of 2013.Casualties have risen 23 percent over the same period in 2012, according to the UN’s midyear “Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Afghanistan,” released at the end of July by the mission’s human-rights unit. The report documented 1,319 civilian deaths and 2,533 injuries in the first half of 2013.
Among the increasing attacks, those against women suggest that they are being particularly warned to not venture into public life of any sort.
Anti-government and anti-foreign militants were responsible for 74 percent of all civilian causalities — an increase of 16 percent of deaths and injuries attributed to them — the UN mission reported. Nine percent of the casualties were caused by pro-government forces; 12 percent were the result of combat; and the remaining 5 percent came mostly from unexploded ordnance now littering the countryside. The UN mission has been documenting deaths and injuries systematically since 2007 and established a computer database in 2009.
The report found that improvised explosive devices planted by anti-government fighters, which can indiscriminately kill people who trigger them regardless of whether they were the intended targets, are the leading cause of civilian deaths and injuries. Fighting between government forces and militants, however, has emerged as the second-largest cause of casualties, a new trend. This is also leading to the deaths of more women and children.
“The growing loss of life and injuries to Afghan women and children in 2013 is particularly disturbing,” Georgette Gagnon, director of the mission’s human-rights unit, said at a news conference in Kabul, the capital, on July 31. “Deaths and injuries to women and children increased by 38 percent in the first half of 2013, reflecting a grim reality of the conflict today in Afghanistan.”
From Jan. 1 to June 30 in Afghanistan, 347 women and children were killed and 770 others were injured, the report said. These are all conflict-related deaths, and the increasing incidence of violence threatens women on many levels, from fear for their lives to despair about what the future portends for those who survive. In many cases, attacks that harm women and children are intended as a warning for them to stay out of public view. It is a reminder that the Taliban and other anti-government groups, such as the freewheeling militia controlled by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose vicious assaults on women have been part of the Afghan scene since the mujahideen were battling Soviet forces in the 1980s, are intended to return women to their homes and keep them off the streets.
Women who try to engage in politics have been murdered, as have teachers and other public servants. The killing of women has risen percent over the same period in 2012, the UN report said. This has led to considerable fear among many Afghan women and their families that their lives will be in far greater peril when foreign forces leave Afghanistan, putting in doubt the future of their programs to improve women’s lives.
Gagnon has taken a strong interest in the rights and protection of women that a string of Security Council resolutions with global reach have demanded for more than a decade, but that continue to be ignored in most conflict areas. Gagnon, a Canadian international human-rights lawyer, was formerly director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch and earlier director of human rights for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she managed field operations in the mid-1990s, dealing with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, many of them women and their families.
She has participated in missions to Sudan for the Canadian government, Canadian and British nongovernmental organizations and the US State Department and worked with UN missions in the Balkans and Rwanda.
“Rising civilian casualties in the first half of 2013 paints a frightening picture for the Afghan people,” she said at the news conference in Kabul. It “drives home the need for parties engaged in military operations to fully comply with their legal obligations to protect civilians and prevent civilian casualties.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.