Protecting civilians in Afghanistan: Civilian harm tracking and casualty recording

First published 3rd Jun 2014

US Marines strike insurgent positions in the village of Now Zad, Afghanistan in 2008. In 2012 NATO decided to limit airstrikes in order to minimise civilian casualties. © Lance Cpl. Brian Jones

In Afghanistan, documenting and analyzing civilian harm has been a critical component of both United Nations and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) efforts to reduce the impact of armed conflict on civilians.

Civilian casualty tracking by ISAF and civilian casualty recording by the Human Rights Unit at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanitan (UNAMA) informed the respective organizations of the conflict’s impact on civilians, enabled the organizations to crosscheck data, and fostered conversations regarding changes to operations to prevent and mitigate civilian harm.

Civilian harm tracking and casualty recording are two distinct approaches to documenting civilian harm. Where casualty recording seeks to impartially and systematically document all casualties of conflict, civilian harm tracking gathers data on instances of civilian harm, including death, injury and property damage, and is undertaken by warring parties in order to better understand the civilian harm caused by their own operations.

Both of these tactics have been employed in Afghanistan to great effect, with advocacy based on robust casualty data helping to influence conflict parties to alter particularly harmful tactics and decrease civilian death and injury. 

The Center for Civilians in Conflict and Every Casualty examine these practices in complementary reports. In Civilian Harm Tracking: Analysis of ISAF Efforts in Afghanistan, the Center addresses the creation, implementation, and evolution of ISAF’s Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell (CCTC) and identifies lessons for future such mechanisms. Every Casualty examines casualty recording within the UN system, and particularly the work of UNAMA Human Rights Unit in The UN and Casualty Recording: Good Practice and the Need for Action. The joint briefing paper highlights evidence of the usefulness of these practices and recommendations for future use.

Based on the case of Afghanistan, it is clear that having both mechanisms in a conflict environment can help facilitate evidence-based discussions between military and non-military actors, supporting more effective action to protect and assist civilians.

Download the joint briefing paper here.

Download Every Casualty’s report here.

Download CCC’s report here