Top UN rights official urges safeguards to avoid civilian deaths in Afghanistan

Louise Arbour

20 November 2007 – Noting that civilian casualties resulting from international military operations in Afghanistan have reached “alarming” levels this year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights today urged that measures be taken to avoid the loss of innocent life.

Speaking to reporters in Kabul, Louise Arbour said that even prior to her current visit to Afghanistan she was concerned by the high rates of civilian casualties caused by both insurgent activities and international military operations.

On the latter in particular, she stated that civilian deaths resulting from operations carried out by international military forces, including the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), have reached alarming levels.

“These not only breach international law, but are eroding support among the Afghan community for the Government and international military presence, as well as public support in contributing States for continued engagement in Afghanistan,” the High Commissioner stressed.

In that regard, Ms. Arbour said she reassured that there has been a “sober realization” by ISAF commanders of this concern and a willingness to address the issue in a constructive way.

“This will mean ensuring that preventive measures and safeguards to protect civilians are at the forefront of operational decisions. It also means that when civilian casualties occur, ISAF needs to be more responsive and accessible to families in ensuring redress,” she stated, adding that this could include compensation to victims’ families.

She urged that particular attention be paid to the problem, stating that “some seem to think that human rights are a luxury that can be enjoyed only after security is ensured. But the major sources of insecurity in the country stem from human rights violations or the failure to effectively address the violations of the past.”

Ms. Arbour, who last visited the country in 2005, also expressed disappointment in the lack of progress in implementing commitments made under the Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice in Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, the transitional justice agenda has been reduced in many people’s minds to the prosecution of individuals alleged to be responsible for past crimes, some of whom continue to hold high positions, the High Commissioner said. “But transitional justice is a multi-faceted process which focuses on the needs of the victims – for truth, for compensation, for rehabilitation – as well as on the punishment of the perpetrators.”

She called on the Government and its international partners to recommit to advancing the transitional justice agenda, stressing that “efforts to build the rule of law and reform the justice sector will not succeed as long as impunity at the highest levels remains unaddressed.”

Ms. Arbour added that the deepening sense of insecurity and preoccupation with criminality has led to some regressive steps in Afghanistan, particularly the recent resumption of executions. She pointed out that as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Afghanistan is bound not to apply the death penalty unless the highest standards of due process have been respected in each case.

In addition, the High Commissioner said she was struck by the degree to which progress on women’s rights has stalled, noting that while 28 per cent of parliamentary seats are reserved for women, they are “strikingly absent” from other branches of the Government, most notably the judiciary.

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