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The new top UN human rights official reported this morning that civilian casualties in Afghanistan are up by 40% this year compared to the first eight months of 2007. By far, most of the casualties are the result of deliberate insurgent attacks on civilians–the new figures show that the number of civilians killed by the Taliban nearly doubled from last year.

That said, this report comes in the backdrop of a dispute between the United States and the United Nations about a US-led raid last month in the town of Azizabad, which the United Nations said left 90 non-combatants dead. The U.S. military rejects that claim, saying that no more than seven civilians were killed. The rest–up to thirty five people–were Taliban fighters.

The nature of this kind of warfare makes distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant exceedingly difficult. But succeeding at nation building in Afghanistan means winning the support of the Afghan people. Unfortunately, this task is made much more difficult when Afghan civilians become victims of collateral damage or mistaken identity.

Whatever the case with the incident in Azizabad, it is indisputable that the coalition is responsible for some civilians deaths. In discussing the new report, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay points to a way that coalition forces might help mitigate the consequences of an errant bomb or misidentified Taliban insurgent:

“There is an urgent need for better coordination between Afghan and international military forces to enhance the protection of civilians and the safety and welfare of war-affected communities,” said Ms. Pillay.

“It is also imperative that there is greater transparency in accountability procedures for international forces involved in incidents that cause civilian casualties,” she said, adding that there should also be a rapid and independent assessment of damages and a fair and consistent system of condolence payments to survivors and relatives of victims.

This latter point is key. It is not for Pillay to say what is in the coalition’s strategic interests in Afghanistan–her office’s main concern is for the human rights of the victims. Still, mitigating the long-term consequences of civilian deaths is critical to winning hearts and minds. Compensating innocent victims of coalition errors can certainly help. And thanks to the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) (an NGO that pressed the United States Congress and NATO to set up funds to compensate war victims) this idea is becoming more and more commonplace.

We clearly don’t have much sway over how insurgents like the Taliban treat non-combatants. But we can influence our own governments to do the right thing by compensating innocent victims in conflict. In as volatile a place as Afghanistan, it is in all our interests that NATO makes a good faith effort to do so.

(photo from flickr)

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