U.S. bombing of hospital in Afghanistan a grave breach of international law

Fires burn in the MSF emergency trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after it was hit and partially destroyed by aerial attacks on October 3, 2015. - MSF

Fires burn in the MSF emergency trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after it was hit and partially destroyed by aerial attacks on October 3, 2015.
– Photo by MSF

In 14 years of war and occupation the U.S. military has committed some serious atrocities in Afghanistan, but few compare to the war crime committed over the weekend when the United States repeatedly bombed a hospital in the northern city of Kunduz for over an hour – killing 22 medical workers and patients, including three children, and injuring 37 other people.

Perhaps realizing the truly grave nature of the assault on the Doctors Without Borders hospital, the U.S. has changed its story a number of times attempting to explain its actions. While originally indicating that it was an accident, the military then claimed that its bombing of the hospital was in response to enemy fire from the facility.

On Monday, however, General John Campbell, who commands the 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and holds ultimate responsibility for Saturday’s attack, said that it was actually “called in” by Afghan commanders. But as the New York Times reported on Monday, there was no clarification given on the discrepancies between the various U.S. accounts:

General Campbell’s comments … did not clarify the military’s initial claims that the strike, which killed 22 people, had been an accident to begin with. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has repeatedly said that there had been no fighting around the hospital, and that the building was hit over and over by airstrikes on Saturday morning, even though the group had sent the American military the precise coordinates of its hospital so it could be avoided.

Campbell even acknowledged that his new story was “different” than the two earlier stories, while failing to explain precisely why the stories differed so greatly from day to day. “An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck,” he said. “This is different from the initial reports which indicated that U.S. forces were threatened and that the airstrike was called on their behalf.”

So here we have the Pentagon blatantly contradicting itself – repeatedly – and manipulating the media, falsely portraying the attack as somehow justified or legal. But even the new explanation offered by the military does not clarify whether the United States knew that it was bombing a hospital, which is a grave violation of international humanitarian law even if there were enemy combatants in the vicinity.

no weapons msfAs MSF has stated, it had repeatedly given notification to the U.S. military of its coordinates, including five days before the attack, and even called the U.S. military during the bombing urging them to stop the attack – all to no avail. The bombing continued for more than a half-hour after the U.S. had been contacted by MSF, with several strikes pounding the clearly identified hospital, incinerating patients in their beds.

Attacking the sick and wounded, even if the intended targets are enemy combatants, is a clear violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, which states:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

If the United States knew that it was bombing a medical facility, this would also be a grave breach of Customary International Humanitarian Law, as explained by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which states on its website:

Medical personnel exclusively assigned to medical duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, acts harmful to the enemy.

This rule, the ICRC explains,

goes back to the 1864 Geneva Convention and was repeated in the subsequent Geneva Conventions of 1906 and 1929.  It is now set forth in the First, Second and Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949.  Its scope was expanded in Article 15 of Additional Protocol I to cover civilian medical personnel in addition to military medical personnel in all circumstances.  This extension is widely supported in State practice, which generally refers to medical personnel without distinguishing between military or civilian medical personnel.  It is also supported by States not, or not at the time, party to Additional Protocol I.

This very clearly stated law of war, dating back 151 years and elaborated upon in multiple conventions and protocols, explains why the United States and Afghan allies will go to great lengths to portray the MSF hospital as engaged in combat in some way. However, these claims are vociferously disputed by the victims of this assault.

MSF said that it is “disgusted” by statements justifying violence, calling them essentially an “admission of a war crime.”

As MSF stated Monday:

Today the US government has admitted that it was their airstrike that hit our hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 patients and MSF staff. Their description of the attack keeps changing—from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government. The reality is the US dropped those bombs. The US hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical.

independent investigation kunduzFor these reasons, MSF is calling for an independent investigation of the incident, as opposed to the internal inquiry that the Pentagon is promising. So far, it seems that the international community is relatively united in its condemnation of the U.S. war crime, with the ICRC saying it was “deeply shocked by the bombing” and “strongly condemn[ing] such violence against patients, medical workers and facilities.”

The ICRC noted that “under international humanitarian law (IHL), the civilian population, medical personnel, ambulances and medical facilities must be respected and protected in all circumstances, and the work of medical personnel must be facilitated.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called the event “utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal.”

Zeid also called for a “swift, full and transparent investigation.”

However, as we have often seen, when the U.S. starts fully throwing its diplomatic weight around, often these war crimes and atrocities end up swept under the rug. It’s therefore up to civil society to keep the pressure on.

The victims of this crime – whether alive or dead – absolutely demand it.

MSF Sweden demanding an independent investigation.

MSF Sweden demanding an independent investigation.

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