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Forces from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan commit apparent war crimes in 2022 conflict

Forces from both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan committed apparent war crimes in attacks on civilians during their brief but intense armed border conflict in September 2022. Human Rights Watch said in a report «When We Moved, They Shot: Laws of War Violations in the September 2022 Kyrgyzstan — Tajikistan Border Conflict,» released on May 2.

As the human rights activists note, the report is the most detailed human rights account to date of the 4 days of fighting in 2022, from September 14 to 17.

«Civilians living in the disputed border areas of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan paid a heavy price for the callous conduct of both Kyrgyz and Tajik forces during the fighting last September,» said Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. «The families of victims deserve justice and reparations to pave the way for a rights-respecting resolution to this ongoing dispute.»

As the Human Rights Watch stresses, the report documents serious violations of the laws of war by both sides during that time that resulted in civilians being unlawfully injured and killed and significant damage to homes, schools, medical facilities, and shops.

Forces shot at ambulances and private cars carrying families trying to flee and dropped a laser-guided bomb on a town square, killing at least 10 civilians. Tajik forces shot at cars carrying civilians and unlawfully killed at least eight civilians in different circumstances, and large-scale looting and burning of private property took place in Kyrgyz villages while they were under the control of Tajik forces.

Several of these attacks by both parties likely amount to war crimes.

Human Rights Watch

In late October and early November, human rights activists interviewed 86 people on both sides of the border, including 69 survivors, witnesses, or relatives of victims. Researchers visited the affected villages, examined munition remnants, verified 12 videos, analyzed satellite imagery, and constructed 3D models of attacks.

Human Rights Watch also submitted a series of questions to the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in December 2022 and March 2023. The government of Kyrgyzstan replied with information about attacks against its citizens but gave no information on attacks involving its own forces. The Tajik government did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s letters.

As the human rights activists note, the four days of fighting amounted to an international armed conflict that was governed by international humanitarian law.

This obliges all parties to distinguish between civilians and combatants at all times. It prohibits attacks that deliberately target civilians or attacks that are indiscriminate, in that they fail to or are unable to distinguish between civilian and military objects, or are disproportionate meaning they can be expected to cause harm to civilians and civilian objects that is excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

Warring parties must take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian harm.

Authors of the report call on the governments of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to investigate allegations of violations or abuses committed by their forces and civilians in the areas they controlled, and they should hold perpetrators to account. They should provide training to their military and security forces in international humanitarian law and ensure its standards are upheld in any future conflicts.

The two governments should ensure that any border demarcation agreements and interim border arrangements respect the rights of local populations, including property rights and access to education, adequate housing, and water. They should extensively consult local populations and civil society groups in the context of the border demarcation process. They should also promote confidence-building measures between local communities in border areas, including programs to reduce tensions and hate speech.

Human Rights Watch also calls on both governments to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration and the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s international partners should support steps by the two governments to investigate serious violations of international humanitarian law in the September 2022 border conflict and ensure accountability.

«On both sides of the border, civilians said they desperately want the cycle of conflict and abuse to end,» Gallopin said. «To help ensure a peaceful resolution, both governments should commit to protecting civilians and respecting human rights.»

Shooting began at several sites of the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the morning of September 16. Settlements in Leilek and Batken district came under fire. The Ministry of Health reported 206 victims, 63 people were killed. As a result of the armed conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, 420 houses of local residents were destroyed.

The Prosecutor General’s Office of Kyrgyzstan opened a criminal case on crimes against peace.

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