Article 8 of the 1949 Geneva Convention makes this clear. “Civilian hospitals organised to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the parties to the conflict.”
The United States bombed a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on October 3.
The Taliban and its allies had overrun the town. MSF had the only major trauma center in northern Afghanistan. It was highly respected, even by the Taliban.
As a precaution, MSF sent the US military the coordinates of the hospital. Short of a giant Red Cross on the roof, this is supposedly the best protection in times of war.
Nonetheless, the hospital was bombed.
US aircraft circled the hospital for half an hour, bombing – as MSF put it – “repeatedly and persistently”. There was no stopping the US Air Force’s AC130 gunship.
MSF pleaded with the US authorities to halt the firing, to no avail. The US military headquarters in Afghanistan admitted that it had fired at “insurgents… in the vicinity of a Doctors Without Borders medical facility”.
UN Human Rights Chief Ziad Ra’ad al-Hussein said that the incident was “utterly tragic, inexcusable and possibly even criminal”.
“If established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime,” he said. The US does not now deny that it bombed the hospital, knowing it was a hospital. This is all that needs to establish it as a war crime.
The US said it would investigate the incident itself. General John Campbell, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, said: “Very broadly, we do not strike those kinds of targets, absolutely.”
The presumption of innocence is of course essential to any investigation. But there is also the tendency for this presumption to morph into a failure to look seriously into criminal practices.
One of the major discoveries in Chelsea Manning’s cache of documents was a helicopter video from July 12, 2007. Two United States’ AH64 Apache helicopters circled civilians in Baghdad, Iraq, opened fire on them and killed eighteen people – including two journalists.
Despite the clear visual evidence of the cold-blooded killing of civilians, there has been no accountability. It seems possible that a similar whitewash will be delivered when the press loses interest in this story.
NATO, which has command responsibility here, said it would send a casualty assessment team to the area. Given NATO’s poor record on investigations of possible war crimes, little can be expected from the alliance.
When the UN wanted to investigate NATO’s 2011 bombing in Libya, based on UN Security Council resolution 1973, its Brussels headquarters stalled. NATO’s legal adviser, Peter Olson, wrote to the UN saying that NATO deserved immunity.
“We would be concerned if ‘NATO incidents’ were included in the commission’s report as on par with those which the commission may ultimately conclude did violate law or constitute crimes,” he wrote.
What NATO would like, he concluded, was for the UN commission to “clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya”.
In other words, NATO refused to cooperate with the investigation, but wanted the UN to give NATO a certificate of good conduct. Why trust NATO’s investigation now?
No wonder that MSF wants a “full transparent independent investigation”. Why is this so? Here is MSF’s clear statement:
“The reality is the US dropped those bombs. The US hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack.”
US aircraft more frequently kill civilians who are at weddings. The Saudis likewise followed that practice in Yemen on September 28.
Bombing hospitals is normally the expertise of the Israelis, notably bombing al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza in 2014. None of these incidents end in accountability. There is outrage in the press. Then there is silence.
A few years ago, I visited al-Jazeera Arabic’s office in Doha, Qatar.
A room there houses a macabre museum for those al-Jazeera journalists who died in warzones, or who had been taken to Guantanamo – such as Sami al-Hajj.
The most famous story among them was that of Tarek Ayoub, who was killed in Baghdad on April 8, 2003 by a US fighter plane.
During the invasion of Iraq, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld went on a rampage against al-Jazeera’s Arabic service, calling its reporting “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable”.
Both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, al-Jazeera managing editor Mohammed Jasim al-Ali provided the US with the coordinates of its offices.
On November 13, 2001, a US missile bombed al-Jazeera’s office in Kabul. In 2003, the US bombed al-Jazeera’s office in Baghdad, killing Ayoub.
A year later, on April 16, 2004, an apparent conversation took place between US President George W Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Bush speculated about bombing al-Jazeera’s Doha office. Blair, according to a leaked memo, talked him out of it.
This was likely Bush being silly. But nonetheless underneath the humour lies a chilling reality. All those who aid or abet “the enemy” are fair game. No one was held to account for the death of Tarek Ayoub, nor for the deaths of ITV’s Terry Lloyd, Reuters’ Taras Protsyuk or Telecinco’s Jose Couso.
There will be “investigations” in inverted commas, and reports written in haste to gather cobwebs in posterity.
There will be pious news conferences, and uncomfortable absences at UN meetings. Guardians of the Responsibility to Protect principle, such as US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and US National Security Adviser Susan Rice, will step into the limelight to make justifications.
Their reputations will further sink. No one will be held to account. Time will slip by. Wars will continue.
Vijay Prashad is a columnist at Frontline and a senior research fellow at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs. His latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2014 paperback).