Men fleeing a military offensive in South Waziristan queue to get handouts at a distribution point for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Dera Ismail Khan on October 27, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - The Pakistani government and armed forces should ensure that civilians who cannot escape the intensified fighting in South Waziristan have sufficient access to food, health care, and other necessities, Human Rights Watch said today.

"People trying to get away from the fighting are already reporting civilian casualties and food shortages," said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The approaching winter is only going to make a bad situation worse, especially for those left behind, unless aid reaches them."

On October 17, 2009, Pakistan's military announced a new offensive in the South Waziristan agency of the tribal areas. Since July, when the Pakistani military began an aerial bombardment campaign, about 150,000 people have fled the area. Displaced civilians have found shelter with host communities and fellow tribe members in the nearby towns of Dera Ismail Khan and Tank.

The army has declared South Waziristan a closed military zone until the operation ends. Journalists and human rights monitors are barred from entering. The area is under indefinite curfew, lifted briefly to allow civilians to move to safer areas. However, many civilians have been unable to leave, or have stayed behind to care for the sick or elderly or to protect property. Telephone links to the rest of the country have been severed since October 17. Fighting and other security hazards, including the threat posed by Taliban abductions, landmines, and so-called improvised explosive devices, have prevented international and Pakistani humanitarian relief agencies from accessing South Waziristan.

Human Rights Watch called on both parties to the conflict to take all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties and to allow humanitarian relief agencies and independent monitors access to the area. The Pakistan armed forces and Taliban militants are obliged to abide by international humanitarian law (the laws of war).

"If the aid agencies can't reach the people trapped in the fighting, it could be a catastrophe," Hasan said.

Previous military operations in the tribal areas have resulted in massive civilian displacement, extrajudicial executions, mass arrests, house demolitions, and arbitrary detentions.

Human Rights Watch has received reports of civilian deaths and the destruction of property during the Pakistani military's current operations.

The Taliban and allied groups have committed violations of the laws of war amounting to war crimes in suicide bombings and other attacks deliberately targeting civilians or by carrying out attacks indiscriminately, Human Rights Watch said. Such attacks have resulted in the deaths of at least 250 civilians and wounded hundreds others across Pakistan thus far in October alone.

"Unfortunately, the Pakistani military's conduct in previous operations in the tribal areas does not inspire confidence in its ability to safeguard human rights and ensure civilian protection," Hasan said. "The Pakistani government should do everything possible to hold the Taliban accountable for crimes against civilians, but in a way that minimizes the risk to and suffering of local residents."

Human Rights Watch also called upon Pakistani armed forces and the Taliban militants to allow civilians sufficient time to evacuate conflict areas to minimize civilian casualties and suffering. During the fighting in the Swat valley in May, civilians told Human Rights Watch that the Pakistani army often gave no, or insufficient, advance warning before it began military operations, forcing residents to flee under fire. International humanitarian law requires parties to a conflict, whenever circumstances permit, to provide effective advance warning of an attack.

International humanitarian law requires that the parties to a conflict take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and take all feasible precautions to minimize loss of civilian life and property. These precautions include taking every feasible step to verify that the objects of attack are military targets and not civilians, as well as avoiding densely populated areas, and giving effective advance warning of attacks when circumstances permit. Even after giving advance warning, a warring party is still required to take civilians who remain into account when attacking the area.

"There is no excuse for lack of adequate warning or time for civilians to leave the conflict zone," Hasan said.

Human Rights Watch called upon the international community, particularly the United States and European Union, to provide more humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Pakistan in light of the deteriorating situation in the North West Frontier Province and the tribal areas.

"Large parts of northwestern Pakistan are in a state of social and economic collapse as the result of the campaign of Taliban atrocities and the resulting huge population displacement as the army has moved in," Hasan said. "Influential countries such as the US need to press Pakistan to respect international law in its military operations and to help with humanitarian aid."