Posted by: Christian | August 12, 2010

The cost of an Afghan life is…?

ABC news has put out an article on compensation for families of Afghan civilians killed by foreign forces. It especially focuses on the Germans:

It’s a hot Tuesday afternoon in Kunduz, more than eight months after the German-ordered deadly bombing of two hijacked trucks that had become stuck in a riverbed. Karim Popal, who is sitting cross-legged on the floor, tells his listeners that Germany intends to pay €4,000 (about $5,280) for each civilian killed in the Sept. 4, 2009 incident.

“Four thousand euros in compensation,” says Popal, looking at the group. […] They are village elders from Chahar Dara, the district surrounding Kunduz. Most of them are Popal’s clients.

“Four thousand euros is very little,” says one man in the group.[…]

At around the same time in Berlin, a burly man with a short haircut is sitting in the German Defense Ministry. “I think that €4,000 or $5,000 is a suitable amount that’s appropriate for the country,” he says.

The story goes on to discuss a potential lawsuit in German courts on behalf of the victims’ families. It also mentions American compensation:

The Americans often pay $2,000. The Germans have been known to pay up to $30,000. These are voluntary payments with no recognition of any legal obligation. This too is probably part of a war that is being waged in a largely lawless context.

Well, I wrote about financial compensation for civilian victims of Western forces in Afghanistan about a year-and-a-half ago. My conclusion? Using figures and guesstimates from Alef Shah Zadran’s work on local legal systems (admittedly with a limited area for case studies), the foreign military compensation rates are – minus the unmarried girl as compensation thing – possibly quite close to customary compensatory payments among Pashtuns for wrongful death (caveats in original article, read it before you send me angry emails). And I assume that the victims in the German case are Pashtuns since the incident was in Chahar Dara.

How about revenge? Zadran (p. 217) writes:

Extreme differentials in wealth and/or power between offender and offended preclude any attempt by the latter to avenge himself.

Well, things have changed and you can join the insurgency and maybe get that revenge. But these people seem to be after monetary compensation, not revenge, despite whatever strange ideas some people may think about Pashtuns and revenge.

And what was I saying about an unmarried girl above? Again, Zadran (p. 274) writes:

When the maraka (council of elders) make a decision satisfactory to the both sides a nake or a khoon (blood price) of 60,000 Afs. [1970s] should be paid by the slayer’s party. Moreover, the murderer in addition to “Pashto” sharm (shame), two sheep and going nanawat (taking asylum to the slain’s home), must provide the other party with an unmarried girl.

So those other factors, which foreign governments can’t deliver, should be factored in in monetary terms. [note: I’m pretty sure compensation is the same for murder as for manslaughter, negligent homicide, etc…]

It has been a while since I fully read Zadran’s work, but I don’t recall anything about punitive damages being higher based on ability of the liable party to pay. My best guess is that situation would just not arise as no powerful entity in Afghan history would actually be held accountable for compensation. Foreign governments (or any extremely powerful actor) paying compensation is new territory. So traditional customary law never factored that into the system.

But clearly these people up in Kunduz would prefer their case to be heard under Western law – in some countries with additional punitive damages added to the monetary compensation – rather than local customary law where damages awarded are apparently capped and compensatory/restitutive only. But Germany is not that hot on punitive damages, no? Nonetheless, if the plaintiffs win in the Kunduz case I would expect that compensation would be much higher than the current payouts regardless. As for taking the case to a German court, I would do the same and toss my own cultural ideas of law and compensation if there was a system that, in a particular case, would offer me a higher level of compensation. Culture is flexible… yours, mine, and theirs.

The reasons for foreign governments and militaries wanting to keep the compensation at the level it’s at? It’s not because they can’t afford it. I can guess at some practical reasons, but I would like to hear their version.

Caveat: customary law has been on the way out to varying degrees in different areas…i.e., government courts since the 1880s (on and off) and shariah law forbidding ‘blood-money’ at various times in various places. But it still persists, especially in rural areas.

Most of my thoughts on the issue are in my earlier article. But I think this requires a German lawyer and an anthropologist to really provide a decent argument either way.

If you would like to read Zadran’s work (Socio-economic and legal-political processes in a Pashtun village, southeastern Afghanistan), send me an email. I scanned a copy (350 pages in English, 10MB PDF).


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