TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Oct15/03)
9 October 2015
Third World Network

UN: MSF seeks int'l probe into Kunduz hospital hit, possible war crime
Published in SUNS #8108 dated 8 October 2015

Geneva, 7 Oct (Kanaga Raja) -- The medical humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) on Wednesday called for an investigation by an international humanitarian fact-finding commission into a US airstrike on its hospital in the Afghanistan city of Kunduz over the weekend, and for one of the States, party to the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, to invoke it.

The announcement was made by MSF International President Dr Joanne Liu here in Geneva, where the MSF headquarters is based.

The International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission was established under the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions and was officially constituted in 1991 to investigate allegations of violations of international humanitarian law.

According to the Commission's website, some 76 countries have recognised the Commission, which is based in Bern, but so far, it has not yet been called upon to conduct any investigation.

In some remarks released to the media here, Dr Liu asked the signatory States to activate the Commission "to establish the truth and to reassert the protected status of hospitals in conflict."

According to a fact sheet released by MSF, from 2:08 am until 3:15 am on Saturday, 3 October, MSF's trauma hospital in Kunduz was hit by a series of aerial bombing raids at approximately 15-minute intervals.

The main hospital building, which housed the intensive care unit, emergency rooms, and physiotherapy ward, was hit with precision, repeatedly, during each aerial raid, while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched.

According to the fact sheet, the total number of people killed in the attack is 22, including 12 MSF staff members and 10 patients. Thirty-seven people were injured, including 19 members of the MSF team.

From 28 September, when major fighting broke out in Kunduz city, until the time of the attack, MSF teams in Kunduz had treated 394 wounded people in the hospital, and when the aerial attack occurred, there were 105 patients in the hospital and more than 80 MSF international and national staff present.

MSF said the attacks took place despite the fact that it had provided the GPS coordinates of the trauma hospital to Coalition and Afghan military and civilian officials as recently as Tuesday, 29 September.

The attack continued for more than 30 minutes after MSF first informed US and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington that it was a hospital that was being hit.

MSF said its hospital was the only facility of its kind in northeastern Afghanistan, providing free high level life- and limb-saving trauma care. In 2014, more than 22,000 patients received care at the hospital and more than 5,900 surgeries were performed.

The MSF hospital in Kunduz has been partially destroyed and is no longer operational, it said.

In her remarks to the media, MSF President Liu said that international humanitarian law is not about ‘mistakes'. "It is about intention, facts and why."

"The US attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz was the biggest loss of life for our organisation in an airstrike. Tens of thousands of people in Kunduz can no longer receive medical care now when they need it most. Today, we say: enough. Even war has rules."

"In Kunduz our patients burned in their beds. MSF doctors, nurses and other staff were killed as they worked. Our colleagues had to operate on each other. One of our doctors died on an improvised operating table - an office desk - while his colleagues tried to save his life," said Dr Liu.

"This was not just an attack on our hospital - it was an attack on the Geneva Conventions. This cannot be tolerated. These Conventions govern the rules of war and were established to protect civilians in conflicts - including patients, medical workers and facilities. They bring some humanity into what is otherwise an inhumane situation."

The MSF President further said that the Geneva Conventions are not just an abstract legal framework - they are the difference between life and death for medical teams on the frontline.

"They are what allow patients to access our health facilities safely and what allows us to provide healthcare without being targeted."

"It is precisely because attacking hospitals in war zones is prohibited that we expected to be protected. And yet, ten patients including 3 children, and 12 MSF staff were killed in the aerial raids."

Dr Liu said that the facts and circumstances of this attack must be investigated independently and impartially, particularly given the inconsistencies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened over recent days.

"We cannot rely on only internal military investigations by the US, NATO and Afghan forces."

She went on to announce that the organisation is seeking an investigation into the Kunduz attack by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, and asked the signatory States to activate the Commission.

"Though this body has existed since 1991, the Commission has not yet been used. It requires one of the 76 signatory States to sponsor an inquiry. Governments up to now have been too polite or afraid to set a precedent. The tool exists and it is time it is activated."

It is unacceptable that States hide behind ‘gentlemen's agreements' and in doing so create a free for all and an environment of impunity. It is unacceptable that the bombing of a hospital and the killing of staff and patients can be dismissed as collateral damage or brushed aside as a mistake, said Dr Liu.

"Today we are fighting back for the respect of the Geneva Conventions. As doctors, we are fighting back for the sake of our patients. We need you, as members of the public, to stand with us to insist that even wars have rules."

Earlier in the week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mr Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, also condemned the airstrikes on the MSF hospital in Kunduz.

In a press release issued on 3 October, the rights chief called for a swift, full and transparent investigation into the overnight airstrikes that hit the clinic in Kunduz killing and injuring many patients and medical personnel.

"This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal," Zeid said.

"International and Afghan military planners have an obligation to respect and protect civilians at all times, and medical facilities and personnel are the object of a special protection. These obligations apply no matter whose air force is involved, and irrespective of the location."

The High Commissioner said that it was essential to ensure any inquiry was independent, impartial, transparent and effective.

"This deeply shocking event should be promptly, thoroughly and independently investigated and the results should be made public," he said.

"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."

[The call from MSF for an investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission came even as the United States Pentagon officials (in testimony before the US Senate Armed Forces Committee) gave what media reports have called the "fourth version in as many days" for the US airstrikes against the MSF hospital in Kunduz.

[Glenn Greenwald, Founding Editor of the news portal "The Intercept", in a post at the site,
(, commenting at length on the airstrike on the MSF hospital, under the title "The Radically Changing Story of the US Airstrike on Afghan Hospital: From Mistake to Justification", noted that at first the US had called it a "mistake", and since then over the last four days, as more and more details emerged, MSF challenged the US versions. Calling the airstrike initially as a mistake, Greenwald noted, is "a standard obfuscation tactic that the US and Israel both use whenever they blow up civilian structures and slaughter large numbers of innocent people with airstrikes."

[The comment said that usually, the only voices protesting or challenging the claims of the US military are the foreign, non-western victims who live in the cities and villages where the bombs fall, and are easily ignored, or dismissed as either ignorant or dishonest, and these voices barely find their way into US news stories. In this case, though, the US military bombed the hospital of the MSF, run by western-based physicians and other medical care professionals, not so easily ignored... difficult to marginalise and demonize, and giving compelling, articulate interviews in English to US media outlets. They are heard, and listened to... and MSF has used this platform, un-apologetically and aggressively.

[As a result of all of this, Greenwald notes, there is now a radical shift in the story being told about this strike. No longer is it being depicted as some terrible accident of a wayward bomb. Instead, the predominant narrative from US sources and their Afghan allies is that this attack was justified because the Taliban were using it as a "base."

[Greenwald cited an MSF statement in response to the emergence of the justification claim: "MSF is disgusted by the recent statements coming from some Afghanistan government authorities justifying the attack on its hospital in Kunduz. These statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present. This amounts to an admission of a war crime. This utterly contradicts the initial attempts of the US government to minimize the attack as ‘collateral damage.' There can be no justification for this abhorrent attack on our hospital that resulted in the deaths of MSF staff as they worked and patients as they lay in their beds. MSF reiterates its demand for a full, transparent and independent international investigation." - SUNS] +