Afghan Rights Groups Shift Focus to Taliban

ROD NORDLAND
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan — International and local human rights groups working in Afghanistan have shifted their focus toward condemning abuses committed by the Taliban insurgents, rather than those attributed to the American military and its allies.

Outraged by growing civilian casualties, many activists are now calling for the insurgents to be investigated for war crimes and viewed as war criminals.

The insurgents are now blamed for more than three-fourths of all civilian casualties, according to United Nations statistics, and those casualties increased by 20 percent last year.

Several groups have approached the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which has been conducting a preliminary inquiry into war crimes charges in Afghanistan. The activists’ concern would have been unheard-of a year ago, when a series of large-scale civilian casualty episodes caused by NATO forces outraged Afghans and prompted President Hamid Karzai to repeatedly condemn his own allies.

Human rights groups joined the chorus of blame. Now, the episodes that activists say they worry most about no longer stem from NATO aerial bombardments or special forces night raids but from the insurgents’ indiscriminate use of suicide bombers, assassinations and improvised explosive devices.

According to United Nations figures, those attacks caused more than 1,800 civilian deaths from January to October 2010. By comparison, NATO forces are blamed for up to 508 civilian deaths last year, according to the Afghanistan Rights Monitor, an independent Afghan group, or even fewer, according to United Nations or NATO figures.

The change in attitude is prompted by more than just raw statistics. NATO and American military leaders have made reducing civilian casualties a cornerstone of their policy and have moved quickly to investigate claims of abuses and often issued apologies. “NATO, in some cases they acknowledge their mistakes; to some extent they have taken positive steps in terms of reducing their impact,” said Ajmal Samadi, director of Afghanistan Rights Monitor. “On the insurgent side we don’t have any acknowledgment of the problem and instead we see a brazen continuation of their crimes.”

Afghanistan Rights Monitor is no stalking horse for the government. Last year, Mr. Karzai’s spokesman Waheed Omer attacked the group as supporting the enemy. “We said it will take a miracle to win this war under Hamid Karzai’s leadership, and he didn’t like that,” Mr. Samadi said.

While a code of conduct put out by the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in 2009 and updated last June called for avoiding civilian casualties, the Taliban have since claimed responsibility for many attacks where civilians were, if not necessarily the targets, the main victims. “We haven’t seen any change in the conduct of the Taliban since their code of conduct,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a commissioner of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “To the contrary, we’ve seen an increase in roadside bombs and suicide attacks in places where there are civilian populations.”

A Jan. 29 attack on the Finest Supermarket in Kabul by a Taliban member, using both firearms and a suicide bomb vest, was both a recent example of the insurgents’ disregard for civilians and something of a watershed event for the human rights community. Among the 14 civilian victims was a prominent human rights activist, Hamida Barmaki, her husband and their four young children; the youngest victim, her 2-year-old son, had a bullet wound in the head as well as blast wounds. When his body was found, clutched in his hand was the scorched remains of a plastic shopping bag handle.

That galvanized many in the rights community, and a memorial service held in Ms. Barmaki’s honor on Feb. 1 at the Human Rights Commission turned into a series of impassioned eulogies, mostly denouncing the insurgents for singling out civilians. “Killing innocent people is a mortal sin, and under the holy religion of Islam, those who did this are condemned to hell,” said Sima Samar, the head of the rights commission.

Rights groups have not stopped criticizing international forces, particularly over the issue of night raids, which often result in civilian casualties. Many say, as well, that the increased tempo of NATO operations is to blame for the greater frequency of all attacks, including those that end in civilian casualties. But human rights advocates’ main emphasis has shifted to what amounts to an insurgent killing rampage among softer, civilian targets — whom insurgents kill more than twice as often as they kill government or coalition forces.

For the first time last summer, the United Nations’ twice-yearly report on the protection of civilians in Afghanistan, which previously focused on NATO and Afghan government violations, blamed the insurgents for engaging in “unlawful means of warfare through increased use of I.E.D.’s, suicide attacks and assassinations that violate Afghans’ basic right to life and the international humanitarian law principles.”

Taliban officials reacted furiously to the report, denying its conclusion that insurgents caused most civilian deaths and proposing a “joint commission” between the United Nations and insurgents to study the problem. “NATO, with the tactical directives, they’ve moved a long way,” said Rachel Reid, Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan analyst. “It’s very possible to engage with them, even organizations like mine, they’ll meet with us and listen to our concerns.” “There is a real need for more pressure and open dialogue with insurgent forces for their violations of the laws of war,” she said. She was among human rights activists who have met with the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, encouraging at least a preliminary investigation of human rights abuses on all sides. “He’s interested, and his ears are open,” she said.

The prosecutor’s office “is examining alleged crimes within the jurisdiction of the court by all actors involved,” said Florence Olara, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor. “A preliminary examination however does not necessarily mean the prosecutor will open an investigation.” Last August, Amnesty International called on the court to step in. “The Taliban and other insurgent groups should be investigated and prosecuted for war crimes,” the group declared.

The Human Rights Commission had a meeting on Saturday at which it discussed formally calling on the court to investigate Taliban war crimes, but it has made no decision, Mr. Nadery said. That initiative is complicated by efforts to start reconciliation talks between the government and the Taliban. As part of that, the Karzai government pushed through an amnesty law that specifically absolves any insurgent who stops fighting and accepts the government of all past war crimes and crimes against humanity — an amnesty so broad that it runs contrary to international law.

On top of that, American officials have shown little enthusiasm for the involvement of the International Criminal Court. Fearing prosecution of its own soldiers, the United States has never signed the treaty that established the court, although Afghanistan has.