Doctors Without Borders, calling the U.S. airstrike on its hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, an “attack on the Geneva Conventions,” is asking for an independent investigation by a never-before-used international commission.
The International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission has been in existence since 1991. It requires a request by one of the 76 nations that have signed on to it for it to begin its work. Its job is to investigate whether international humanitarian law has been violated.
Doctors Without Borders — also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF — has said it believes the bombing was a war crime.
“Governments up to now have been too polite or afraid to set a precedent,” Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, said Wednesday. “The tool exists, and it is time it is activated.”
For charity, ‘the biggest loss of life … in an airstrike’
The attack in the embattled city Saturday killed 12 medical staff members and at least 10 patients, three of them children. It was “the biggest loss of life for our organization in an airstrike,” Liu said.
Another 37 people were wounded, according to the global charity group, which works in conflict zones to help victims of war and other tragedies.
Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has said the hospital in Kunduz was struck accidentally during an American airstrike Saturday. The Pentagon is carrying out an investigation, as are NATO and Afghanistan.
“If errors were committed, we will acknowledge them,” Campbell said. “We will hold those responsible accountable, and we will take steps to ensure mistakes are not repeated.”
Doctors Without Borders wants a full and transparent investigation by an independent agency.
“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 group said.
The United States has changed its account of what brought on the airstrike.
‘Today, we say, ‘Enough’ ‘
First it said, initial reports indicated the airstrike was called to protect U.S. forces. Then it said Afghan forces called for the air support because the Afghans were taking fire.
“Today, we say, ‘Enough,’ ” Liu said.
“Today we are fighting back for the respect of the Geneva Conventions. As doctors, we are fighting back for the sake of our patients.”
The United States is not one of the states that have recognized the commission.
A balance between humanity and military necessity
In general terms, a war crime may be committed when there is an attack on a civilian population during an armed conflict, said Steven Kay, a laywer who defended Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta against charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court,
There is an extensive body of law that regulates military action during conflict.
The aim, said Anthony Dworkin, a human rights expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, is to draw a balance between what armed forces are justified to do out of military necessity — which includes causing collateral damage to civilians — and the principles of humanity.
“Hospitals enjoy a special protected status under international humanitarian law. So, to attack a hospital or medical facility, whether it is a civilian or military installation, is a crime,” Kay said.