During a press briefing on Wednesday morning, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the president had telephoned Dr. Joanne Liu, MSF international president, to "apologize and express his condolences for the [Medécins Sans Frontières] staff and patients who were killed and injured when a U.S. military airstrike mistakenly struck an MSF field hospital."
This comes a few hours after Liu spoke at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to demand an independent investigation into the attack.
Earnest told reporters that the president assured Liu there would be full transparency.
“The president assured Dr. Liu that the Department of Defense investigation currently underway would provide a transparent, thorough, and objective accounting of the facts and circumstances of the incident and that if necessary the president would implement changes that would make tragedies like this one less likely to occur in the future.”
After 22 people were killed in a U.S. airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, several prominent international development organizations are demanding that the U.S. be held accountable.
“This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal,” U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said. “[I]f established as deliberate in a court of law an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime.”
While it is still unclear whether or not the hospital or the surrounding area was the target of the airstrikes, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) did inform pro-government forces of the exact coordinates of the hospital, yet MSF claims that “airstrikes continued to hit the area for a further 30 minutes after pro-Government forces were informed they were endangering a medical facility,” according to a report by the United Nations Human Rights website.
General John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters that Afghan ground troops had requested the air support in Kunduz during a week-long besiegement from the Taliban.
“Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. air forces,” Campbell said. “An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck.”
MSF president Meinie Nicolai spoke out against U.S. officials’ claims that the hospital was merely collateral damage.
“This attack is abhorrent and a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law,” Nicolai said in a statement. “We demand total transparency from Coalition forces. We cannot accept that this horrific loss of life will simply be dismissed as ‘collateral damage.’”
Ra’ad Al Hussein refuses to let that happen. “This deeply shocking event should be promptly, thoroughly and independently investigated and the results should be made public," he continued. "The seriousness of the incident is underlined by the fact that, depending on circumstances, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime."
He's not the only one calling this a war crime.
Co-Coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence peace activists Kathy Kelly spoke with Sputnik on Monday, saying, “It’s patently obvious that a war crime was committed [in Kunduz].”
Indeed, it could be.
According to Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights, an organization which documents attacks on medical workers around the world, this should definitely be a defined as a war crime.
“’Collateral damage’ is not an acceptable excuse for what by all accounts seems to be a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” Sirkin said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “Targeting a hospital is a war crime and warring parties are obligated to take every measure possible to avoid attacking health facilities."
Unfortunately, the laws that are supposed to protect hospitals from these kinds of attacks are only applicable when it can be proven that the hospital was targeted directly.
“Hospitals don’t enjoy complete protection, however, as if the damage or potential damage to a hospital is assessed to be not excessive in comparison to the military advantages obtained by a nearby legitimate attack, collateral damage to the hospital is not unlawful,” Ken Gude, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress in an interview. “So for the Kunduz attack to be a war crime, it would either have to be shown to be a deliberate attack on the hospital, or that U.S. military did not take sufficient care to protect the hospital from excessive harm incidental to a legitimate military objective.”
Other staff at MSF pointed out that the attack seemed to be targeting the hospital as the surrounding buildings were, for the most part, untouched.
For now, it will take time for officials to investigate whether or not the hospital was directly targeted by U.S. airstrikes. Until then, as long as officials continue to shrug their shoulders and claim that it was simply collateral damage, there is little anyone can do to hold the U.S. accountable without some sort of hard evidence.
“It may take some time to get the facts, but we will get the facts,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter promised reporters on Sunday. “There will be accountability as always in these incidents, if that is required.”