‘Even war has rules’: MSF demands independent probe of Kunduz hospital bombing

Joanne Liu, president of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) International, pauses before making her statement in Geneva, Switzerland, October 7, 2015 © Denis Balibouse
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is calling for an independent investigation into the deadly US airstrike on a hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz to determine whether the attack can be regarded as a war crime.

READ MORE: Obama ‘apologized’ to MSF for Kunduz hospital strike – White House

According to Doctors without Borders, such an investigation should gather evidence from the US, NATO and Afghanistan, as well as testimonies of the Kunduz hospital staff and patients. Depending on the findings, MSF would consider whether to bring charges for loss of life and partial destruction of the hospital in Kunduz.

“If we let this go, as if it was a non-event, we are basically giving a blank cheque to any countries who are at war,” MSF International President Joanne Liu told a news briefing on Wednesday.

“If we don’t safeguard that medical space for us to do our activities, then it is impossible to work in other contexts like Syria, South Sudan, like Yemen,” she added, while describing the horrors of the hospital bombing.

“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,” Dr Liu said.

In her speech, Joanne Liu announced that MSF wanted the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to conduct an investigation into the Kunduz attack. This international body was established in 1991 under the additional protocol to 1949 Geneva Convention relating to the protection of civilian persons in time of war – it has never been convened since that time.

“The tool exists and it is time it is activated,” Liu said, adding that “governments up to now have been too polite or afraid to set a precedent.”

The MSF said that on Tuesday it sent letters to the 76 countries that ratified the protocol, asking them to initiate the procedure for setting up the commission as, according to the protocol, a request of a single state is sufficient to do that. The MSF was also reportedly holding talks with Switzerland about potentially convening the commission.

“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,” Joanne Liu said during the news briefing.

Several investigations have already been launched by the US and Afghanistan, as well as NATO and the Pentagon.

On Tuesday, the United States took responsibility for the airstrike on the MSF hospital in Kunduz, calling it “a mistake.” On Wednesday, US President Barack Obama called MSF’s international president, Joanne Liu, and apologized, according to White House.

However, the MSF does not view any of the ongoing probes as independent or unbiased enough to accept their findings.

“Relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient,” MSF’s General Director, Christopher Stokes, said in a statement on Sunday. Later, Joanne Liu echoed his words, saying that the MSF “cannot rely on internal investigations by US, NATO and Afghan forces.”

However, neither the US nor Afghanistan are signatories to the additional protocol to the Geneva Convention that established the Swiss-based International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission. In addition, the consent of the countries involved in an enquiry is needed for the investigation to be launched, as MSF’s lead legal counsel, Francoise Saulnier, pointed out to Reuters.

READ MORE: Blame Game: NYT, CNN play it coy naming perp in Afghan hospital bombing

In this regard, Jason Cone, executive director of MSF in the United States, called on Barack Obama to greenlight a probe.

“Doing so will send a powerful signal of the US government’s commitment to and respect for international humanitarian law under rules of war,” Saulnier said at a news conference, as quoted by Reuters.

He also claimed that the US military hadn’t given the MSF any prior notification that their hospital in Kunduz would be targeted, violating both the Pentagon’s 2015 instructions on the rules of war and the rules of war themselves. 

“This was not just an attack on our hospital – it was an attack on the Geneva conventions. This cannot be tolerated,” Joanne Liu said. “Today we say: enough. Even war has rules.”

LISTEN MORE: