Afghanistan: Accountability for civilian deaths

'Every civilian victim of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan adds to years of killings, repression, displacement and hunger. The human cost of the conflict continues to mount and increasing reports of civilian casualties allegedly arising from US-led military action are a cause for grave concern,' Amnesty International said today.

'US officials have admitted that a number of civilian targets have been hit as a result of error, however the lack of public information on such attacks is disturbing.'

It is not possible to independently verify reported civilian deaths because of the limited access to Afghanistan for impartial observers. Reports from UN officials, humanitarian NGOs and refugees fleeing to Pakistan raise enough concern to call for an immediate and full investigation into what may have been violations of international humanitarian law such as direct attacks on civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks.

Amnesty International has already asked the US authorites to investigate a number of attacks, including the air attack on 12 October on the village of Khorum, where a number of civilians were reportedly killed; and the attack on 16 October on International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warehouses in Kabul, in which one Afghan civilian was injured. Another attack on the same ICRC compound took place on the morning of Friday 26th October.

The organization has also expressed concern at an attack on an Afghan radio station mentioned at a Pentagon news briefing on 11 October. On 16 October Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld indicated that radio stations and the television station were hit because they were 'propaganda vehicles for the Taliban leadership'. However, Amnesty International considers civilian radio and television stations to be civilian objects even when they are 'propaganda vehicles'.

The US-led forces should take sufficient precautions to protect civilians in selecting military objectives and means of attack. They should also desist from an attack if it becomes apparent that the objective is not a military one, or the attack risks being disproportionate to the military objective.

Amnesty International is also very concerned about the use of cluster bombs close to civilian areas and is calling for an immediate moratorium on their use, pending an international review of their use due to take place in December 2001 in Geneva at the Second Review Conference of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

Cluster bombs present a high risk of violating the prohibition of indiscriminate attack, because of the wide area covered by the numerous bomblets released. At least 5% of them do not explode upon impact becoming de facto anti-personnel mines and remaining a continued threat to people, including civilians on the move, who come into contact with them.

Just this week the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that cluster bombs were dropped over a village near Herat, in Western Afghanistan. The village was littered with unexploded bomblets, restricting the movement of local people.

'If cluster bombs continue to be used, civilians will not only suffer now but for years to come,' Amnesty International warned.

Amnesty International has also called on the Taleban to take immediate action to prevent and repress serious violations of humanitarian law. Following a public statement on 10 October by al-Qa'ida spokesman Sulayman Abu Ghaith, suggesting that his group has no intention of respecting the principle of distinction between civilians and the military, Amnesty International urged the Taleban to ascertain whether al-Qa'ida or other forces fighting alongside the Taleban have carried out or are planning to carry out direct attacks on civilians, such as the 11 September attacks in the USA. Any such attack would be a grave breach of international humanitarian law.

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