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Afghan families leave their houses after fighting between the Afghan military and Taliban insurgents in Helmand province, Afghanistan, October 13, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Abdul Khaliq

(New York) – Afghanistan remained the deadliest country for civilians in 2020, as peace talks began between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically exacerbated the deepening humanitarian crisis in the country. 
Taliban attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were a leading cause of civilian deaths and injuries. Afghan government airstrikes also killed and injured scores of civilians, which were rarely properly investigated. The Islamic State armed group was believed responsible for several large-scale attacks on civilians. Afghan women and children made up half of all conflict fatalities. 

“As fighting persisted, while the peace talks struggled to get off the ground, all sides to Afghanistan’s conflict continued to cause terrible harm to civilians,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Countries supporting the peace process should press for firm commitments to protect civilians and uphold human rights, notably women’s rights, and the rights to education, and in support of media freedom.” 
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.  
The first round of the intra-Afghan negotiations began on September 12. Throughout 2020, Afghan women’s rights groups and other activists called for broad representation of Afghans in the talks with the Taliban, and for preserving constitutional guarantees on women’s equality and other women’s rights in any settlement. 
The Afghan government failed to prosecute senior officials responsible for unlawful killings, sexual assault, and torture; including the former governor and Afghan Football Federation president Keramuddin Karim, who was indicted on multiple counts of sexual assault of female players. In January 2020, the attorney general’s office arrested 18 people in connection with the reported widespread abuse of hundreds of schoolboys in Logar province. However, none of the police or senior officials alleged to have been responsible were arrested.  
The Taliban were believed responsible for a number of attacks on journalists, including Elyas Daye, a journalist in Helmand killed by a magnetic bomb on November 12. Some government officials also threatened journalists. However, the authorities dropped proposed amendments to the media law that would have imposed severe restrictions on journalists.  
In November, the Australian government released a redacted report of a four-year military investigation into alleged war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, that found credible information of 23 incidents of unlawful killings of 39 civilians and prisoners. 
On March 5, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) reversed the Pre-Trial Chamber’s 2019 decision, and authorized the court’s prosecutor to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by all parties in Afghanistan, including US personnel.  
“Neither the Afghan or US governments have demonstrated a commitment to justice for the conflict’s victims and their families,” Gossman said. “ICC member states and other governments should press for credible accountability to be part of the peace negotiations.”  

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