UN report: civilian casualties from drone strikes in Afghanistan Jan – Jun 2013

unamaIt is very rare to get any details of civilian casualties in the war in Afghanistan and even rarer to have information about civilian casualties from drone strikes in Afghanistan.  Today the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released its mid-year report  Afghanistan: Protection of civilians in armed conflict (pdf).   The report details a 23% increase in civilian casualties over the same period last year.   UNAMA  attributes  74% of civilian deaths and injuries to Anti-Government Elements, 9% to Pro-Government Forces, 12% to ground engagements between Pro-Government Forces and Anti-Government Elements, with the remaining 4% unattributed.

One section of the report (reproduced in full below) details civilian casualties caused by UAVs (drones).  UNAMA makes clear that it may be under reporting the number of civilian casualties from UAVs because they are not always able to confirm which type of aerial platform was used during an operation that resulted in civilian casualties and due to ISAF not routinely make available information on their air operations.

For the first six months of 2013, UNAMA documented 15 civilian deaths and 7 injuries in seven drone strikes.   UNAMA says one of the fatalities was a civilian de-miner working with a humanitarian NGO.  Apparently ISAF are continuing to insist he was a ‘mid-level IED planter’.

We have submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Defence asking if British Reapers strikes were responsible for any of the casualties documented by the UNAMA report, as UK Reapers have operated over Nad Ali district, Helmand province in the past.

Following is excerpted from UNAMA report Afghanistan: Protection of civilians in armed conflict

In the first six months of 2013, UNAMA documented 15 civilian deaths and seven injuries in seven separate incidents of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)152 or drones targeting Anti-Government Elements.153 In the same period in 2012, UNAMA did not verify any incidents of civilian casualties from UAVs.

Although civilian deaths and injuries from UAV strikes accounted for less than one per cent of all civilian casualties, UNAMA seeks clarification on the targeting criteria and accountability mechanisms regarding the use of UAVs (and other aerial platforms)154 to carry out air strikes that may be classified as targeted killings.155

For example, on 4 June 2013, ISAF fired two missiles at a humanitarian de-miner as he was working with 80 de-miners clearing mines in Panjawi district, Kandahar, killing him instantly.156 No other de-miners were physically harmed. At the time of the killing, the victim was not directly participating in the hostilities. He was carrying out humanitarian de-mining activities which would indicate that continuous combat function had not been established, as required under international humanitarian law for a civilian to lose protected status. ISAF stated that the target was a mid-level IED planter and an operation to track and detain him would risk the target’s disappearance before troops reached him.157

It is unclear if all military forces currently operating in Afghanistan are held accountable to the same standards and policies regarding the use of lethal force in aerial operations. In this regard, UNAMA notes that coordination and consistency in practice, policies and procedures among ISAF, US Special Forces, US Special Operations Forces and US Government Agencies, including the CIA, particularly regarding the use of UAVs, is required to promote protection of Afghan civilians.

UNAMA notes that ISAF has agreed to brief UNAMA on its tactical and operational policies guiding targeting criteria and establishment of positive identification prior to release of weapons.158 Such dialogue may promote transparency and provide clarification on how current policies and practices comply with international humanitarian law. This is of particular relevance regarding the use of air-released ordnance against pre-approved targets.

Other examples of air-related incidents include:

  • On 24 May, ISAF carried out a UAV strike targeting Anti-Government Elements in Achin district, Nangarhar province, killing one civilian farmer.
  • On 5 March, Nad Ali district, Helmand province, international military forces conducted a UAV strike against Anti-Government Elements in the area, killing one insurgent and wounding five civilians.
  • On 13 February, Pro-Government Forces conducted a night search operation against suspected positions of Anti-Government Elements in Sheigal district, Kunar province, which led to a clash between forces. International military forces carried out an airstrike on a compound targeting Anti-Government Elements, resulting in the death five children and four women and injuring of three children and one woman.

(Footnotes from original)

152 UAVs are also defined as Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). There is no distinction between the terms RPA, UAV and drones.

153 UNAMA may be under reporting the number of civilian casualties from UAVs because UNAMA is not always able to confirm which type of aerial platform was used during an operation (i.e. fixed-wing, rotary-wing or UAV) that resulted in civilian casualties. In addition, international military forces do not routinely make available information on air operations due to its classification.

154 UNAMA notes ISAF’s comment that “the targeting process is deliberate, accountable, and legally verified, regardless of the platform used. This is a single ISAF targeting process. RPAs are a weapons delivery platform.” NATO/ISAF unclassified comments released to UNAMA, 28 July 2013.

155 Although in most circumstances targeted killings violate the right to life, in the exceptional circumstance of armed conflict, including non-international armed conflict, they may be legal. See United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council 14th Session, Agenda item 3, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston. Addendum, ‘Study on Targeted Killings’. A/HRC/14/24/Add.6. 10 May 2010.

156 The victim was working on Team 24, Emirates Mine Clearance Program Afghanistan (EMCPA) Mine Clearance Task Site. See Non-demining Fatal Accident Internal Investigation Report of Military Aircraft Bombing of EMPCA Team-24 Task Site, 4 June 2013, copy 7 of 10.

157 UNAMA meeting with ISAF representatives, 10 June 2013, Kandahar Airfield (KAF), Kandahar. UNAMA raised the case again with ISAF which upheld this position and stated that no further information was available, UNAMA meeting at ISAF HQ, 2 and 3 July 2013, ISAF HQ, Kabul.

158 UNAMA meeting with ISAF HQ, Kabul, 28 July 2013.

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