Is alleged US bombing of Afghan hospital a war crime?

International charity Medecins Sans Frontières and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights say that the bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan this weekend, possibly by US forces, could be a war crime. 

Médecins Sans Frontières/ Reuters
Doctors work to save patients after an air strike in the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan hit a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital on Saturday. The US has acknowledged it may be to blame for the attack, which killed at least 19 patients and staff.

Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF) General Director Christopher Stokes reiterated his organization’s calls for an open investigation into the bombing of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, this weekend, saying that Afghan officials’ excuses for the air strike, believed to have been led by the United States, amount “to an admission of a war crime.”

At least 19 patients and staff were killed early Saturday morning, when an MSF hospital was hit repeatedly despite having provided its exact location to US-led Coalition forces. MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, is a private charity which treats patients around the world regardless of politics, religion, or ethnicity, and says that, as the only hospital in the area, it had taken in 394 patients since Monday, when fighting broke out in Kunduz after the Taliban captured the city.

The damage left the hospital unusable, forcing most MSF staff to leave the region.

The US Army has acknowledged that one of its airstrikes “may have caused collateral damage” as it fought combatants, and promised to open an investigation, as has NATO.

However, MSF has demanded an independent, open investigation, “under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed.” The organization claims that no fighters entered the hospital on the night of the bombings, and that the bombing continued even after MSF first notified military officials that it had been hit.

“This attack is abhorrent and a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law,” said Meinie Nicolai, MSF President. “We demand total transparency from Coalition forces. We cannot accept that this horrific loss of life will simply be dismissed as ‘collateral damage.'” 

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein joined MSF in condemning the attack and calling for an investigation into war crimes. Under international humanitarian law, hospitals may not be used as military targets or bases.

“The seriousness of the incident is underlined by the fact that, if established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime," Mr. Zeid said Sunday

Gregory Steven Gordon, a war crimes expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told CNN that civilian sites such as hospitals or schools could lose immunity if used as a site from which to launch military attacks.

Afghan officials have attempted to justify the strikes by saying that “armed terrorists” were positioned in the hospital, which MSF strongly denies, and, as the organization points out, contradicts the American response. Even if militants were in the hospital, however, an attack would have to use “the least destructive” weapons and offer plenty of warning, according to Prof. Gordon.

According to the United Nations, over 19,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since 2009, and the Kunduz attack will certainly not boost Americans’ reputation among locals. US forces are also under fire for supposedly ignoring Afghan partners’ routine abuse of young boys, as investigated by The New York Times.

War crimes accusations rarely amount to much, say skeptics. Some believe that the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the basis for today’s humanitarian laws, are insufficient and “seem almost quaint” in today’s warfare conditions, Prof. John Ciorciari of the University of Michigan told Voice of America last year.

Israel is often pointed to as an example of a country frequently accused of war crimes, yet seemingly suffering few consequences.

In 2014, during Israel’s summer war in Gaza, the United States said it was “appalled” by Israel’s shelling of a UN school where 3,000 Gazans took refuge, saying that Israel was well aware of its location and needed to do “more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.”

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