Dear NATO Heads of State,
The 2016 NATO Summit, to be held in Warsaw on July 8-9, 2016, is meant to reaffirm NATO’s continuing commitment to Afghanistan at a time when the Afghan government is under growing pressure not only from Taliban insurgents, but also from groups claiming affiliation with the Islamic State. Since the withdrawal of most international forces at the end of 2014, the conflict between the Afghan government and these insurgents has escalated, straining the capacities of the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF), and taking a higher toll on civilians. The UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented a steady rise in civilian casualties since 2009, with each year setting a new record of civilian loss of life. In the first three months of 2016, one-third of civilian casualties were children.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups have been responsible for the vast majority of attacks that have caused significant civilian casualties in Afghanistan, particularly by carrying out suicide bombings in urban areas and planting IEDs on public roads. However, despite years of support and training by NATO allies, ANSF personnel are also increasingly responsible attacks that have killed civilians. In 2015, UNAMA documented a 28 percent increase over 2014 in civilian casualties caused by government security forces, most from the use of indirect fire weapons (mortars, rockets etc.) during ground engagements in civilian-populated areas. In the first three months of 2016, Afghan government forces were responsible for 369 civilian casualties—a 70 percent increase compared to the same period in 2015.
Over the last decade, millions of Afghan women, men and children have experienced significant progress in areas such as political participation, and access to health care and education. However, these impressive but fragile gains are now at serious risk, not only because of continuing abuses by insurgent forces, but because the ANSF are increasingly putting civilians in harm’s way by occupying schools, raiding medical facilities, recruiting children, and committing these and other abuses with impunity. Not only do these actions imperil the very development goals Afghanistan’s donors and NATO have long pledged to uphold, they undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government, and fuel support for the insurgents.
At the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, as NATO members and partners planned for the drawdown of international forces, they pledged to “support Afghanistan in making further progress towards becoming a stable, sovereign, democratic and united country, where rule of law and good governance prevail and in which human rights, and notably those of children, are fully protected.” At the 2016 Summit, NATO members and partners are expected to pledge their support for the protection of civilians in conflict. In Afghanistan, despite a reduced international military presence and redefined role for the Resolute Support Mission, NATO remains uniquely placed to make good on that pledge by adopting a clear strategy to curb dangerous practices by the ANSF and pressing its Afghan partners to institute effective measures to protect civilians.
Military Use of Schools
One of the key areas in which NATO can make a difference is with respect to ANSF’s occupation of schools. As security throughout Afghanistan has deteriorated in the past 18 months, schools throughout the country have come under threat, not only from Taliban forces but also from the very Afghan security forces that are mandated to protect them. Human Rights Watch’s recent research indicates the magnitude of the problem, and the urgent need for NATO to take a proactive role in addressing it. In April 2016, Human Rights Watch conducted research in Baghlan province, which has seen intense fighting since the beginning of this year. We documented 11 schools occupied or being used for military purposes by units belonging to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan Local Police (ALP). Our research indicates that the problem is widespread in other conflict-affected areas of the country, and getting worse.
The security forces have been using these schools—many of them constructed by foreign donors and often the only concrete-reinforced, multi-story buildings in smaller villages—as their military bases during offensives into Taliban-held areas. Even if the buildings remain unscathed, military occupation interrupts children’s education. But all too often, the schools become battlegrounds as the Taliban counter-attacks government positions, leaving the buildings damaged or in ruins and denying children an education until they can be rebuilt, if ever.
This misuse of schools by Afghan security forces has had a devastating effect on the right to education, affecting tens of thousands of school children at all educational levels, as well as teachers and education administrators. Because families are especially unlikely to allow girls to attend school if the school is being used by soldiers or is believed to be at risk of attack, this misuse of schools disproportionately harms girls’ access to education.
In an annex to this letter we have provided details about some of the schools we visited. Although Afghanistan was one of the original states to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, and its minister of education has publicly called on the ANSF to stop this practice and has written to the Ministry of Interior requesting the immediate evacuation of schools being used by government forces, its response to this situation has been completely inadequate. In cases Human Rights Watch documented, government forces continue to take over schools for military purposes, and in some cases not heeding orders to vacate schools.
Attacks on Healthcare Facilities
Healthcare facilities have also been at risk. Both insurgent forces and the ANSF have been responsible for these abuses. In 2015, UNAMA observed an increase in the number of conflict-related raids and other attacks on hospitals and clinics and assaults on health personnel by all parties, including searches by Afghan Special Forces supported by international military forces. Human Rights Watch has looked into one incident in particular, the February 17-18, 2016, raid by Afghan security forces on a clinic run by the nongovernmental Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) in Day Mirdad district, Wardak province. During the raid, the Afghan Special Forces assaulted medical staff, removed two patients, one of whom was under 18, and a 15-year-old caregiver from the facility, and summarily executed them outside the clinic. Following the incident, Afghan provincial authorities in Wardak province gave statements justifying the raid on the grounds that those killed (including the two children) were Taliban, and that the raid was carried out because Taliban were being treated at the clinic. As you are aware, wounded Taliban fighters who are hors de combat are entitled to treatment, and facilities that provide such treatment cannot be considered targets. International Humanitarian Law provides special protection to medical facilities, staff and patients during armed conflict. In no case can security forces summarily kill persons in their custody.
The SCA clinic in Wardak is the only medical institution in the area, and has been functioning for 22 years. As you may be aware, SCA has operated in Afghanistan since the 1990s, and is one of the largest NGOs in the country, and has responsibility for all healthcare services in two of the country's provinces, Wardak being one of them. Since the raid, staff have reported a decrease in the number of patients seeking care.
According to both SCA and UNAMA, international troops took part in the raid, though reportedly did not enter the clinic itself. The Afghan government has promised to carry out an investigation; however, its record on such investigations is poor, as previous investigations have been neither credible nor impartial, and to date no member of the Afghan security forces has been held accountable for egregious violations of international humanitarian law, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture.
We understand that NATO conducted an inquiry into the incident, although the results have not been made public. We urge you to raise with NATO the need for a full investigation that is credible and impartial, and that results in a clear message to the Afghan government to hold those responsible for the killings and other serious abuses accountable. Impunity for serious violations of international humanitarian law is a key factor in their recurrence. The investigation should also examine the role played by international forces who accompanied the Afghan Special Forces, and whether they attempted to intervene or prevent the killings and assaults on medical staff.
Recruitment of Children by Armed Forces
Both Taliban and government-backed forces use child soldiers, and cases of child recruitment more than doubled in 2015 compared to the previous year, according to a recent UN report. Human Rights Watch published a report in February documenting a significant increase in recruitment in the northeast by the Taliban, but pro-government forces are also responsible for the exploitation of children.
Since 2010, the UN secretary-general has included the Afghan National Police in his annual list of parties to armed conflict that recruit and use children as soldiers in violation of international law, based on cases of child recruitment verified by the UN country team in Afghanistan. In 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, the secretary-general specifically listed the Afghan National Police, including the Afghan Local Police, in his list of violators. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has continued to receive reports of child soldiers in Afghan forces, particularly in the ALP. Very often, these children are the victims of sexual abuse by commanders. To our knowledge, no member of the security forces has been prosecuted for these abuses, or for recruiting, deploying or otherwise using children in the armed forces.
Despite reforms initiated under the National Unity Government, and important steps including endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration and the criminalization of the recruitment of child soldiers, these abuses continue in large part because perpetrators are not held to account. Impunity has long been identified by the Afghan government, donors, and Afghan and international civil society organizations as a key problem in the country’s development and a continued impediment to the protection of civilians. At this crucial moment in NATO’s commitment to Afghanistan, it is clear that a genuine change of course is needed. Taking the necessary measures to ensure better protection of civilians is a crucial starting point.
NATO is uniquely placed to advance protection of civilians due to its high-level engagement with those most often responsible for abuses or those in a position to stop and remedy violations. NATO should strengthen its expertise and capacities by appointing a high-level envoy on Protection of Civilians at Headquarters to ensure successful implementation of its protection of civilians strategy and coordinate with other international and national agencies, experts and civil society groups. She or he would help ensure informed and timely discussion within NATO, and provide expert analysis, advice, and recommendations to advance implementation of specific measures aimed at curbing these serious abuses. The appointment of the Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security provides an important model, but without a similar high-level mechanism on protection of civilians, it will be soon be business as usual, notwithstanding NATO pledges to protect civilians at the upcoming Summit.
In an appendix to this letter we have included a list of recommendations specific to NATO’s operations in Afghanistan.
We look forward to a response from your office to our questions, and to engaging in a constructive dialogue with you about these issues.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Minister of Defense
Ambassador to NATO
Recommendations to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission regarding Civilian Protection in Afghanistan
- Urge the Government of Afghanistan to:
- Take immediate steps to curtail the military use of schools in line with the Safe Schools Declaration and the related Guidelines on Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict, including by incorporating the Guidelines into military orders, doctrine, trainings, and other means of dissemination to ensure appropriate practice throughout the chain of command;
- Establish an effective permanent mechanism to monitor and respond to school occupations and raids on healthcare facilities, including through receiving public complaints;
- Disband all irregular armed groups and militias, or bring them into the command structure of regular armed forces;
- Investigate all allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by Afghan national security forces and pro-government armed groups, and appropriately prosecute and punish those found responsible.
- Secure commitments from the Afghan authorities that schools supported by donor funds will not be used by Afghan security forces for military purposes, and establish a system to monitor these commitments, including through regular check-ins with the school officials at individual schools. Immediately report any such military use or attacks to the relevant authorities, and monitor their response and actions taken;
- Support the government of Afghanistan to develop and implement a national policy on civilian casualty mitigation in the conduct of hostilities. This should also include a mechanism to investigate all civilian casualties, ensure accountability when civilian casualties result from violations of international law, ensure that lessons learned from investigations are incorporated into practice, and provide prompt and fair compensation to civilian victims of international law violations. Support an “amends” program to provide compensation for civilian loss of life and property even where there is no wrongdoing;
- Continue to provide training, resources and related support to Afghan national security forces to develop appropriate protocols, training and civilian casualty mitigation measures, particularly in relation to use of indirect fire weapons and armed aircraft;
- Conduct impartial and transparent investigations into all allegations of civilian casualties on operations involving international security or intelligence forces, especially regarding airstrikes and search operations; take appropriate steps to ensure accountability;
- All NATO member states should endorse the Safe Schools Declaration. Those member states that have already done so should work with the Afghan government to ensure the implementation of its commitments, including through joint military training programs and exercises.
Summary of Human Rights Watch’s finding on military occupation of schools in Baghlan Province
Based on a research mission in April 2016, this report documents 11 schools occupied or being used for military purposes in Baghlan province in north-eastern Afghanistan.
Ustad Golan Jelani Jelali Middle School, Postak Bazaar village in Baghlan province
The school has been a battleground since 2010 when the Taliban laid siege to the school, killing seven policemen who had taken up positions inside a classroom. More recently, in 2015, the Afghan police were back at the school, setting up base with sandbagged positions on the second level while students tried to continue their schooling below. School officials obtained a letter from Kabul authorities ordering the police to leave, but the police commander ignored the order. When the students needed to take exams, school officials again presented the letter to the commander, but his police officers fired their guns in the direction of the assembled teachers and students, forcing them to flee.
Chashme Sher High School, Chashme Sher village in Dand-e Ghori
Chashme Sher High School has one building with eight classrooms and a laboratory. Six hundred students attend Chashme Sher, including girls who are educated up to grade three. The school principal told Human Rights Watch that ALP units occupied the school during bouts of fighting over a period of five to six months between late 2015 and early 2016. The ANA deployed a unit of about 20 soldiers to the district in February, which as of late May 2016, was still stationed inside the school. When the new school year started in March, students had to study in the presence of the soldiers, thus at great risk from any attack on the ANA unit.
Bibi Aina High School, in Omar Kheil village, in Dand-e Shahabuddin
Bibi Aina High School enrols over 1170 boys. As in many schools in Afghanistan, classes take place both within the school building and in large tents. The village came under Taliban control in August-September 2015 until the negotiated ceasefire between ANSF and the Taliban in September 2015. During the January 2016 military clearance operation in Dand-e Shahabuddin, ANA forces of the 209th Shahin Corps forcibly entered the school. They then set up a military base 20 meters from the school from which they regularly engaged in fire fights with the Taliban. The army troops were soon followed by ANP Special Forces, and then joined by the ALP. The commander asked school officials to relocate students to a nearby abandoned house. At the time of the Human Rights Watch visit in late April 2016, the ALP forces remained in place. A school official told Human Rights Watch he had asked the governor to remove the police from the school, to no avail.
Ahmadzai High School, in Ahmadzai village
Ahmadzai High School, home to some 1,600 male and female students is located village. During the early 2016 military clearance operation in Dand-e Ghori, about 200 ANA troops from the 209 Army Shahin Corps occupied the school, using it as their headquarters. According to school officials, when they asked the forces to vacate the school, the ANA commander responded, “We have the right to use government property to base ourselves in.” In mid-April, the Taliban took control of the area around the school, but did not base themselves at the school. However, heavy shelling of the area by government forces made the area around the school too unsafe to allow for teaching at the time of the Human Rights Watch visit in late April, 2016.
Wardak-Ha High School, Wardak-Ha village
Wardak-Ha High School enrols approximately 1,700 students, all boys. During the early 2016 military clearance operation, ANA soldiers, together with ANP and ALP stationed themselves inside the school, using it as a military base. Local officials estimate that between 200 and 250 soldiers and police based themselves inside the school for the duration of the military clearance operation, which lasted for about 40 days. The village elders went to see provincial authorities soon after the arrival of the security forces at the school, and met with the security forces inside the school, who kept promising to move to a private residence nearby. At the end of the military operation, the remaining security forces did relocate to a private residence near the school.
Qalai Khwaja High School, Qalai Khwaja village in Dand-e Ghori
Qalai Khwaja High School enrols approximately 1,850 students. The school had two buildings, a concrete structure financed by UNICEF in 2009-2010 and an adjacent mud-brick structure with six classrooms built by local residents. Following an ANA clearance operation the area in early February 2016, a contingent of about 20-30 soldiers, three Ranger vehicles and one armored vehicle remained stationed in the school. Soldiers from the 203rd Shahin Corps, Kelagai Kandak (Kelagai Contingent), took over three classrooms in the concrete building.
Haji Mir Bakhsh Middle School, in Pul-e Sorong, in the Bagh-e Shamal area
Haji Mir Bakhsh Middle School enrolls approximately 500 boys and 350 girls. The school was constructed with the assistance of UNICEF and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, and received support from the Hungarian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), which provided the school with 100 desks and chairs, and built a boundary wall around the building. Following the collapse of the ceasefire agreement in early 2016, an army contingent from the 209th Shahin Corps participating in the clearance operation of the Dand-e Ghori area was ambushed in the vicinity of Haji Mir Bash school, and immediately retreated to the school. The 40 or so army troops established a base within the school, blocking access to the school. The school officials complained about the military’s use of their school to both the provincial educational authorities and the governor. The educational authorities said they would refer the case to their superiors in Kabul, while the governor told the school officials to “be patient,” a school official told Human Rights Watch. At the time of Human Rights Watch’s April visit, the school remained occupied by army troops, and the school was operating out of an abandoned building nearby. The school official said the presence of army troops at the school has had a devastating impact on school attendance.
Khial Jan Shahid Primary School, in Omar Kheil village in Dand-e Shahabuddin
Khial Jan Shahid Primary School enrolled about 350 boys and girls as of June 2016. The school’s construction was funded by the Swedish government and UNICEF, and was inaugurated in 2014. During the ceasefire period, Taliban fighters occupied the building, using it as a base for about five months. Following the battle that dislodged the Taliban from the primary school building and caused severe damage to the building, a contingent of ALP occupied the building.
 United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, Afghanistan: Annual Report 2015 Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, February 2016, https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/poc_annual_report_2015_final_14_feb_2016.pdf.
 Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, “SCA condemns raid on health clinic in Wardak,” February 18, 2016, http://swedishcommittee.org/blog/sca-condemns-raid-health-clinic-wardak.