UN urged to consider war crimes investigation

By Mark Townsend

A United Nations investigation into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan should be started to identify and prosecute individuals responsible, says a former top-ranking UN official on extrajudicial killings.

Philip Alston called for the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the conduct of the war in Afghanistan amid rising concern over the level of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces and by the Taleban. It should be modelled, he said, on the inquiry into Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip.

In his first interview since stepping down last month after six years as the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Alston said the lack of prosecutions concerning alleged war crimes was cause for concern because of the large number of civilians killed in the Afghan conflict.

"If states are not carrying out reasonably neutral investigations and prosecutions of what appear to be serious violations, it does leave open the possibility that the international community should be intervening in some way.

"An interesting proposal, but one that would draw disdain, no doubt, would be for some sort of international inquiry into the conduct of the war in Afghanistan, along the lines of Gaza.

Otherwise, who is going to do a thorough investigation and track down where the decisions were actually taken?"

Last year's contentious UN investigation into Israel's campaign in the Gaza Strip found evidence that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes.

Yet the failure of the European Union and the US to endorse the inquiry triggered claims by human rights groups that Western powers would pursue war crimes violations only when it suited them.

More than 1000 Afghan civilians have been killed in armed violence and security incidents in the first six months of the year, although most deaths are attributable to the Taleban. A number of instances of alleged civilian killings by British forces in Afghanistan were recently revealed in secret military files published by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.

They chronicled 21 separate occasions in which British troops are said to have shot or bombed Afghan civilians - identifying at least 26 people killed and another 20 wounded as a result. The Ministry of Defence confirmed that no British soldier had been prosecuted in relation to operations in Afghanistan.

The call by Alston, an international law scholar who reported regularly to the UN Human Rights Council, came as sources indicated that UK officials had been contacted by the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court over how the British military investigated war crime allegations.

Alston said the refusal of the US to become an ICC signatory meant that an inquiry by the Human Rights Council offered a reasonable alternative.

A spokesman for the British Ministry of Defence said: "The protection of the Afghan civilian population is at the core of our military strategy. We have strict procedures, frequently updated in the light of experience."

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