UNITED NATIONS - Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is suggesting a dialogue between the UN and the Taliban on reducing civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

“I encourage a meaningful dialogue to reduce this intolerable, continuing death toll and to protect civilians,” the UN chief told the Security Council while opening the debate on the situation in Afghanistan. In this regard, he cited two statements from the Taliban prompted by a recent UN report on civilian casualties as “perhaps indicating a willingness to engage.”

According to a recent UN report, 2,754 Afghan civilians were killed in 2012, down 12 per cent from 3,131 in 2011, but the number killed in the second half of last year rose, suggesting that Afghanistan is likely to face continued violence as the Taliban and other militants fight for control following the withdrawal of US and allied combat forces in 2014.

The UN said the Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for 81 per cent of the civilian deaths and injuries in 2012, a figure the Taliban denies. Meanwhile, Farhan Haq, Associate spokesmanof the secretary-general, said the UN mission in Afghanistan, known as UNAMA, welcomed an open letter from the Taliban on Feb. 22 “as an invitation to engage in meaningful dialogue on human rights and humanitarian issues,” focusing on increasing protection of civilians and verification of civilian casualties. The secretary-general said the govt and international forces in Afghanistan have taken measures to reduce the impact of their operations on civilians.

“Anti-government groups must now live up to their public statement and international obligations to cease targeting civilians, using children in suicide operations, attacking public places and using victim-activated pressure-plate explosives,” he said.

The UN chief said he is especially concerned about the 20 per cent increase in civilian casualties among women and girls last year.

Reuters Adds: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also said that there was a deeply disturbing "pervasive climate of impunity" in Afghanistan for the abusers of women and girls and he called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's govt to take action.

Despite a fall in civilian casualties in Afghanistan for the first time in several years, the UN said last month more than 300 women and girls were killed and more than 560 injured in 2012, a 20 pc increase from 2011. It is blamed that the rise in violence against women is the Karzai admin's waning interest in women's rights, a claim Karzai denies. "I remain deeply disturbed that despite some improvements in prosecuting cases of violence, there is still a pervasive climate of impunity in Afghanistan for abuses of women and girls," Ban said.

"They have an inviolable right to live free of fear or attacks. And women and girls are key to a better future for Afghanistan. Protecting them is central to peace, prosperity and stability for all people in the country," he said.

Ban called for the Afghan government to strictly implement a 2009 law on the elimination of violence against women, which made child marriage, forced marriage, rape and other violent acts criminal offenses.

The UN political mission in Afghanistan, led by special envoy Jan Kubis, said in December that Afghanistan still had a long way to go in implementing the law. Kubis said on Monday that violence linked to culture was the main reason for the rise in deaths and injuries of women girl last year.

Zahir Tanin, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council that Kabul was committed to upholding international commitments on human rights, including women's rights.

Afghanistan is a conservative Muslim country, where under Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001 women were forced to cover up and were banned from voting, most work and leaving their homes unless accompanied by a husband or male relative.

US-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

As foreign forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014, the United Nations and rights groups are concerned human rights in Afghanistan, particularly those of women, will further deteriorate.

Afghan women have won back basic rights in education, voting and employment since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, but fears are mounting that such freedoms could be traded away as Kabul seeks peace talks with the group.

"As Afghanistan builds a better future, the contributions, intrinsic worth and fundamental dignity of Afghan women must continue to be embraced," US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told the council.

The 15-member Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution on Tuesday to extend the UN political mission in Afghanistan for another year. The resolution also expressed concerns about civilian casualties and the rights of women and girls.

The resolution "recognizes that despite progress achieved on gender equality, enhanced efforts, including on measurable and action-oriented objectives, are necessary to secure the rights of women and girls and to ensure all women and girls in Afghanistan are protected from violence and abuse, enjoy equal protection under the law and equal access to justice."

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