US accused of war crime for hospital bombing

Seeking help: Thousands have been displaced by the fighting in Kunduz this summer © PA

A US airstrike against a hospital in Afghanistan has killed 22 people, including children and medical staff. A regrettable mistake? Or an intentional war crime against innocent people?

At around 2am on Saturday morning, Nurse Lajos Zoltan Jecs was sleeping in a hospital safe room in the northern town of Kunduz in Afghanistan. He was woken by the sound of bombing, ‘close and loud’. The hospital was under attack.

‘There are no words for how terrible it was,’ he said. ‘Patients were burning in their beds’. He desperately tried to help where he could — but ten patients were killed in the chaos, along with twelve members of staff.

The hospital was run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and was providing much needed medical care for the citizens of Kunduz. Just a few days earlier, it had been captured by the Taliban, but Saturday’s attack was not carried out by a militant group — it was the US army. They initially said that they were targeting insurgents who threatened US forces. But a few days later, US general John Campbell admitted that bombing the hospital had been a mistake.

Now, MSF president Joanne Liu has accused the country of committing a war crime, and called for an independent international inquiry. She pointed out that MSF had provided the US with coordinates of its hospital. It even called the US and Afghan governments as soon as the bombing began, begging them to stop the attack — but they continued for around an hour. We ‘cannot rely’ on internal military investigations to find the truth, she said.

The hospital incident is not the first time that civilians have been mistakenly killed by US airstrikes. Since 2002, over 100 people have died after being bombed in error while attending wedding parties in the country. And around 1,700 civilians have lost their lives in airstrikes since 2008 alone.

But for the deaths to have broken international law, they must have been intentional. Otherwise, say experts, they were just another tragic incident in a deeply troubled country.

Others ask why the intention behind the bombing should make a difference at all. It’s entirely subjective, and almost impossible to prove. Regardless of whether the US ‘meant’ to do it, 22 innocent people still lost their lives. That’s the only thing that should matter.

Casualty of war

Intentional attacks on civilians are quite rightly banned by the Geneva Convention. It is never America’s intention to break those laws, says the US military. But unfortunately in a complex city like Kunduz, sometimes messages get confused and mistakes are made.

But MSF insists that a crime took place. No other buildings in the compound were targeted, and the US knew they were there. How can that be a mistake? Even if there had been Taliban soldiers inside, it could never justify the deaths of life-saving medical staff.

You Decide

  1. Is war always wrong?
  2. Should the intention behind an act of war determine whether it is legal?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have grown up in the city of Kunduz since the US invaded Afghanistan. Write a diary entry describing your experience.
  2. Afghanistan has been a site of conflict for decades. Search The Day’s archives and create a timeline of events in the country over the last five years.

Some People Say...

“The US should never have invaded Afghanistan.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is this incident worse than the others?
Attacks on hospitals are specifically banned in international humanitarian law, and MSF is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation. It is staffed by volunteers who save lives in some of the most dangerous areas of the world; they should be applauded, not targeted. But it’s a sobering question to consider all the same — none of Afghanistan’s other civilian casualties deserved to get caught up in a global conflict either.
What will happen to Kunduz now?
The loss of the hospital is a real blow, and surviving patients have been transferred to another medical centre around two hours away. The city is strategically important in the north, so it has been a battleground for decades. The Afghan forces are still attempting to win it back from the Taliban.

Word Watch

Afghanistan
The Asian country has been torn apart by conflict for decades. The US invaded in 2001 and toppled the Taliban rulers soon after. It attempted to establish a new, peaceful regime, and withdrew in December last year. But the Taliban remained — and in the last few months, Islamic State militants have emerged as well.
Médecins Sans Frontières
Also known as ‘Doctors Without Borders’, the humanitarian group offers emergency medical aid wherever it is most needed. It is impartial and independent from any political group, and depends on donations from individuals.
Taliban
The hardline Islamic movement controlled most of Afghanistan before the US invasion in 2001. It also has a strong presence in parts of Pakistan.
War crime
A breach of international law during armed conflict, including murder, rape, torture and the direct targeting of civilians.
Geneva Convention
A series of treaties which defined international law during times of war. It was agreed in 1949, and signed by 196 countries — including Afghanistan and the US.

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