(Brussels) – NATO has failed to fully investigate alleged unlawful airstrikes in Afghanistan, which may contribute to rising civilian casualties, Human Rights Watch said today. Member countries attending the NATO Summit in Brussels on July 10-11, 2018, should call for impartial NATO investigations into airstrikes causing civilian loss in order to minimize civilian harm in future attacks. NATO members should also press the Afghan government to hold its forces accountable for serious violations of the laws of war.
At the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, member states endorsed a new policy on the protection of civilians that included measures “to prevent, deter, pre-empt, and respond to situations in which civilians suffer or are under the threat of physical violence.” This should include robust investigations that incorporate interviews with civilian victims and witnesses whenever possible. Human Rights Watch research found that United States investigations into civilian airstrike deaths rarely interview witnesses or obtain other evidence on site.
“NATO is obligated to investigate its role in airstrikes that may have violated the laws of war,” said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher. “Instead, NATO’s Afghanistan mission and members are dismissing claims of civilian harm without seeking out information on the ground, denying victims redress and failing to uncover what went wrong.”
The Afghan government has developed almost no capacity to investigate civilian casualties arising from its military operations amid growing concern about rising civilian harm from its air operations. A United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report on the April 2, 2018 airstrike by the Afghan air force on a madrasa (Islamic school) in Kunduz that killed at least 30 children found that the attack “rais[ed] questions as to the Government’s respect of the rules of precaution and proportionality” under the laws of war. UNAMA concluded that even if the government targeted a legitimate military objective, the timing and place of the attack was contrary to the government’s obligations to take all feasible measures to spare civilians from harm, including under its Civilian Casualty Mitigation Policy.
In research carried out in 2017 and 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed civilian airstrike victims and witnesses in Nangarhar, Herat, and Kabul provinces. The NATO Resolute Support Mission’s civilian casualty team said that they do not conduct on-site investigations after attacks resulting in civilian casualties, relying instead on visual and satellite imagery and typically unreliable Afghan security force reports. Prior to the end of NATO’s combat mission in 2014, the efforts by its Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team to investigate incidents contributed to some improvements in reporting and incorporating lessons learned to reduce civilian loss. NATO’s noncombat Resolute Support Mission has a significantly reduced civilian casualty team.
The Afghan government took over basic tracking of casualties caused by its forces at the Presidential Information and Coordination Center, known as the Tawhid. The Tawhid collects information about civilian casualties, but does not conduct investigations into alleged violations. For some high-profile incidents, like the attack on the madrasa, the authorities may order an investigation, but findings are not made public.
NATO’s unwillingness to interview witnesses is a critical flaw in the Resolute Support civilian casualty investigation methodology because it excludes a key source of information, typically leaving investigators with only one side of the story. Witness statements are critical to any investigation when corroborated with other sources of information, such as site visits, physical evidence, photographic evidence, medical reports, hospital records, and other evidence. The Resolute Support Mission does not rely on any forensic or medical documentation not provided by its sources.
Under the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Afghanistan, warring parties must take constant care to spare the civilian population and civilian objects from the effects of hostilities. Parties are required to take precautionary measures with a view to avoiding and, in any event, minimizing incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and damage to civilian objects. States have an obligation to investigate alleged serious violations of the laws of war and appropriately prosecute those responsible for war crimes. Civilians harmed by violations are entitled to prompt and appropriate compensation.
“Our investigations of recent airstrikes killing dozens of Afghan civilians show that little real effort was made to uncover what happened,” Gossman said. “To minimize future civilian harm, NATO and the Afghan government need to fully investigate and learn from civilian deaths, and appropriately punish those responsible for unlawful attacks.”