Amid Calls for UN Investigation Into Kunduz Strike, US Senator Suggests that the UN Does Not Investigate Taliban Abuses. He’s Wrong.

Today, following calls for an independent inquiry into the US airstrike on the MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) – during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing – asked Gen. John Campbell whether the UN investigates abuses by the Taliban. Sullivan stated that the UN does not investigate the Taliban “typically,” as a way of making a point about the unfairness or imbalance of the UN investigating the Kunduz airstrike. A transcript is below (emphasis added).

Sen. Dan Sullivan I’m going to follow up on a number of the previous questions you’ve been asked. First, Sen. Shaheen had asked about a UN investigation possibly into the hospital accident. Does the UN usually investigate major deliberate attacks on civilians in Afghanistan when they’re conducted by the Taliban?

Gen. John Campbell: Sir, I haven’t seen that in the past. Frankly, I don’t know.

Sullivan: I don’t think they do typically. So, do you think it would seem fair or balanced if the UN conducted an investigation which was on something that was clearly an accident — the hospital bombing — when they don’t investigate deliberate Taliban killing of civilians? Do you think that would viewed as fair or balanced? Or something that Command needs or would welcome?

Campbell: Sir, I can’t comment on how the UN would do that. What I can comment on is, as I said up front earlier, I have complete trust and confidence in the team that we have to be thorough and transparent. If there were mistakes made, we’ll make sure that those come out. If there are people we have to hold accountable, we’ll make sure we do that. I have every trust and confidence in the US and the NATO investigation ongoing.

Sullivan: I think most of us here do as well. And I certainly don’t think an additional investigation by the UN would be warranted or welcomed by this committee.

In fact, the UN regularly investigates Taliban or “anti-government elements” violence, as a quick look at the UN’s website for its Afghanistan mission readily shows. The UN investigates Taliban violence that is deliberate, as well as reckless, and it investigates cases where the facts of an attack may seem quite clear, as well as those where the circumstances are initially far murkier. 

The UN’s mid-year and annual reports on civilian casualties in Afghanistan typically detail anti-government attacks. The photo on the front cover of the most recent UN report on Afghanistan, for example, shows the horrific scene directly after an anti-government element attack in April 2015, in which 32 were killed and 126 injured. The report’s executive summary begins with the testimony of a schoolteacher who witnessed the attack and describes “the blood, the human limbs, the corpses, and the other wounded people all over the street.” Pages 41-77 of the report detail Taliban violence, describing suicide attacks, the use of improvised explosive devices, indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on civilians, and the war crime of murder. It includes a section specifically on suicide and complex attacks, in which 1,022 civilian casualties occurred in just the first six months of 2015.

Many other UN reports also detail the findings of its investigations into Taliban/anti-government element attacks: July 2014 (the cover shows a child injured by a Taliban attack on the Serena hotel), February 2014 (the cover shows a child injured in an IED attack), July 2013 (the cover shows children running from a Taliban attack), February 2013 (the executive summary begins with a gruesome witness account of an IED attack, obtained through UNAMA interviews) , February 2012 (cover shows the aftermath of a suicide attack), July 2012 (cover shows the consequences of an IED attack that killed 13 and injured 57), and so on. A great many UN press statements also regularly condemn Taliban violence.

There are also examples of other parts of the UN system reporting on Taliban attacks. In 2009, for example, a separate part of the UN – the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions – carried out investigations in Afghanistan, including into killings by the Taliban, and detailed reckless as well as deliberate Taliban attacks, including Taliban assassinations of civilians.  

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which Campbell commands, has in the past stated that it “welcomes” the UN’s reports into civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and specifically noted that those reports have “highlight[ed]” Taliban violence. 

About the Author(s)

Sarah Knuckey

Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, Director of the Human Rights Clinic, Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute, Former Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2007-2016) Follow her on Twitter (@SarahKnuckey).