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Dear Mr. Secretary General,

When NATO Ambassadors meet on November 28 and 29 in Riga, Latvia for the alliance’s 19th Summit, they should pay considerable attention to the deteriorating human rights situation in Afghanistan. People from all over Afghanistan have told Human Rights Watch that they view NATO’s role in the International Security Assistance Force (“ISAF”) in Afghanistan as necessary for providing and ensuring their security. However, many Afghans have told Human Rights Watch that they are concerned and frustrated by insufficient coordination between ISAF’s security operations and the process of development and reconstruction.

ISAF’s mandate is to protect the people of Afghanistan and facilitate the reconstruction necessary for improving their lives. We are concerned that NATO’s mission, particularly in southern Afghanistan, has increasingly focused solely on defeating the Taliban and other armed groups allied with them, and ignored the other sources of insecurity bedeviling millions of Afghans, such as illegal armed groups and regional warlords. The alliance’s performance in Afghanistan should be judged through benchmarks such as the ability of ordinary Afghans to gain access to education, health care, and legitimate work opportunities.

NATO should use the Riga summit to take steps to:

  • Focus NATO’s security operations on protecting Afghan civilians
  • Ensure maximum protection of civilians from the effects of combat operations, particularly the effects of aerial assaults
  • Ensure that detainees are treated in accordance with international standards
  • Compensate civilians harmed by NATO Operations
  • Address insecurity caused by warlords and illegal armed groups throughout the entire country

1. Focus NATO’s security operations on protecting Afghan civilians The intensified fighting in southern Afghanistan has hampered, or even halted, the process of reconstruction and development, all the more necessary as the region faces a renewed drought. The fighting and water shortage have also displaced more than 15,000 families—some 80,000 people—according to the United Nations. While the human rights situation is worst in the south, deterioration in human security extends across the entire country.

NATO’s failure to commit the necessary resources to meet the security and development needs of Afghanistan has led to widespread disillusionment over the international community’s intentions and abilities among many Afghans. Since expanding to the south, NATO has largely understood security as a matter of defeating insurgent groups on the battlefield and development and reconstruction as part of a “hearts and minds” campaign necessary to placate a potentially hostile population. It measures success as numbers of Afghan troops trained and international troops deployed, and the number of armed opponents killed. Although important, these figures do not accurately assess the security situation. What is more important is how much these and related efforts improve the day-to-day security of the Afghan people.

Therefore we urge NATO to view security, development and reconstruction as preconditions for a healthy, peaceful, and stable Afghanistan, and as steps toward the realization of the fundamental human rights of the Afghan people. In this regard we urge NATO to measure its performance at providing security by the ability of ordinary Afghans to gain access to education, health care, and legitimate work opportunities and not by the number of insurgents killed.

2. Ensure that detainees are treated in accordance with international standards

US forces in Afghanistan have arbitrarily detained civilians, used excessive force during arrests of non-combatants, and mistreated detainees. This behavior led to widespread anger among Afghans and elicited official complaints from President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials. It is important for NATO forces to establish a uniform set of lawful and transparent procedures for handling Afghans detained in the course of military operations.

Recognizing that US forces did not comply with the legal standards applicable to their operations in Afghanistan, several NATO countries have signed bilateral agreements with the Afghan Ministry of Defense regulating the transfer of detainees from NATO forces to Afghan authorities. While the agreements differ in some details, they share many common features, such as an agreement that NATO forces will release detainees or transfer them to Afghan custody within 96 hours, and that NATO and Afghan authorities will treat detainees in accordance with international law. The agreements further stipulate that Afghan authorities will not try, release, or transfer detainees to a third country without the explicit agreement of NATO forces (presumably to avoid transfer of detainees to US custody or other jurisdictions where detainees may be subject to mistreatment). Under the agreements seen by Human Rights Watch, NATO forces, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, will have access to detainees even after they have been transferred to Afghan custody.

Afghan detainees receive greater protection under these agreements than they receive from the US military, but we are concerned that detainees remain at risk of abuse unless NATO improves the terms and implementation of its policies toward detainees in Afghanistan.

NATO forces have stated that they have detained only a few detainees, even in the heavy combat zones of southern Afghanistan. Dutch forces operating in Oruzgan announced their first five detainees two weeks ago, while British and Canadian forces operating in Helmand and Kandahar, respectively, have publicly acknowledged fewer than 100 detainees. Given the ferocity of the fighting in these areas, the absence of more detainees raises two alarming alternatives: either that NATO forces are not taking detainees, or, more likely, that NATO forces are circumventing their bilateral agreements by immediately turning over detainees to Afghan authorities and thus abrogating their responsibility to monitor the detainees’ treatment.

We have received credible reports about mistreatment of detainees transferred by NATO to Afghan authorities. It is our understanding that the Afghan Ministry of Defense does not have in place a legal framework for holding detainees. We understand that the Afghan government has not yet ratified a law on military tribunals drafted with the assistance of US authorities. For now, we understand that in practice most NATO detainees are transferred to the National Directorate of Security (NDS), an opaque, unaccountable and abusive institution still governed by classified laws promulgated during Afghanistan’s communist era. The NDS operates detention centers that fail to meet international standards for the treatment of detainees.

Although the NDS has made efforts to disassociate itself from its predecessor KHAD, which was notorious for torture, Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of detainees being mistreated by the NDS; in some cases the treatment amounted to torture. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has recently learned that on at least one occasion the NDS hid a detainee who had been handed over by NATO from the ICRC.

Human Rights Watch urges NATO to formulate and articulate a common policy that requires NATO members to be involved at all stages of the detention process. NATO should ensure that the ICRC, United Nations, and Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission have access to all detention centers where NATO detainees are held to monitor prison conditions and investigate allegations of prisoner abuse. Finally, NATO and the Afghan Government should publicize the names of detainees and the date and location of their arrest as well the name of the detainee’s father, birthplace, and current village or town.

3. Ensure maximum protection of civilians from the effects of combat operations, particularly during aerial assaults

We are concerned that NATO’s increasingly heavy reliance on aerial bombardment in southern Afghanistan is not well-suited to a counter insurgency campaign in populated areas and places at risk the civilians that NATO is supposed to be protecting. Afghans have voiced concerns to us about the many deaths and injuries of civilians caused by NATO military operations during heavy confrontations against insurgent forces in southern Afghanistan.

President Karzai, the Afghan legislature and the United Nations have all voiced serious concern at the rising death toll among civilians, as ISAF troop’s combat insurgents, particularly in the south.

On October 25 in Nangawat village of Panjwai district of Kandahar province at least 31 civilians were killed in NATO air operations. The previous week at least 22 civilians were killed as a result of NATO air operations in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

Although the Taliban and other opposition forces have in the past placed civilians at risk by using populated areas to launch attacks on NATO and Afghan government forces, NATO still must take all feasible precautions when attacking areas in which civilians may be present, which include many areas where NATO has conducted military operations.

Human Rights Watches calls upon NATO again to take greater precautions to protect civilians in areas where alliance operations are conducted. And we encourage NATO to conduct and cooperate with investigations into these and similar incidents conducted by Afghan government, Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and the United Nations.

4. Compensate civilians harmed by NATO Operations

Human Rights Watch calls upon NATO to immediately create a program to provide monetary compensation for civilian death, injury or property damage resulting from ISAF operations in Afghanistan. As compensation for their suffering, families that have lost a loved one or had their homes destroyed as a result of ISAF operations have received little more than an apology.

For example, on October 24th NATO air strikes killed 31 civilians in the Panjwai district of Kandahar. Earlier in the year, during Operation Medusa, NATO troops killed large numbers of livestock and destroyed numerous vineyards that insurgents were using as cover, again in Panjwai, causing much economic damage to civilians and fostering resentment towards NATO troops.

Unlike the United States military, NATO does not have a compensation program for Afghan families who suffered losses in ISAF operations. We understand that ISAF will provide more than US $8,000,000 towards the reconstruction of Panjwai and other districts in Kandahar province severely damaged during Operation Medusa. Human Rights Watch welcomes this effort but urges NATO to use the Panjwai response as a model for a new NATO policy of systematically recognizing the responsibility of the alliance to civilians injured in ISAF operations.

We urge NATO to publicly pledge funds for this program at the Riga Summit. This is not only the right thing to do, but necessary to rebuild public confidence in the alliance’s good intentions.

5. Address insecurity caused by warlords and illegal armed groups throughout the entire country

Human Rights Watch’s recent visits to western and northern Afghanistan documented increasing insurgency-related violence. We also found serious abuses by regional warlords in every corner of Afghanistan, such as illegal land grabs, intimidation of journalists, and factional and ethnic violence. Many of these warlords now hold senior government positions.

NATO’s failure—or refusal—to confront regional warlords, and in some instances to even cooperate with them, has led to significant human rights abuses in many parts of the country and eroded the legitimacy of the Afghan central government and its international backers.

NATO should make it clear that its mission is to assist in the protection of the Afghan people including protection from the armed groups that still dominate and harass Afghans throughout the country, even in the north and the west.

In summary, we urge NATO to use the occasion of the Riga summit to respond to these concerns by articulating clear and consistent policies governing the conduct of all NATO forces uniformly across the country. Human Rights Watch believes a common NATO-wide approach towards these issues will enhance security, development, and human rights, as well as ease the suffering of Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire.

We appreciate your attention to our concerns and look forward to continued dialogue with you.


Brad Adams
Executive director
Asia divison

cc: NATO Foreign Ministers Allied Ambassadors to NATO

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