Graphic: Thomas Bræstrup/ Behance
President Obama personally apologized on Wednesday to the head of Médecins Sans Frontières – MSF (Doctors Without Borders) for what he described as the mistaken bombing of its field hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, promising a full investigation into the episode, which took the lives of nearly two dozen doctors and 10 patients.
The Oct. 3 airstrike took place as Afghan forces were fighting to retake the strategic northern city of Kunduz, which was overrun and briefly held last week by the Taliban. The insurgents, who have been massing around the city for months, launched a multi-pronged attack that took authorities by surprise. An American AC-130 gunship devastated the medical facility.
White House officials said Mr. Obama told Dr. Joanne Liu, the international president of Médecins Sans Frontières, that he would make any changes necessary to ensure that such incidents were less likely in the future. And they said that the president promised a “full accounting” of who was to blame, and whether the military’s rules of engagement need to change.
That may not be enough for MSF, which has said they do not believe the three investigations that have been begun into the incident — by NATO and a joint United States-Afghan group and the Defense Department — are independent enough to find the truth about what happened.
Dr. Liu said the President’s apology had been “received” then repeated her request that the United States “consent to an independent investigation led by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission” establish what happened in Kunduz, how it happened, and why it happened.
The use of the word “consent” in her statement was central to the group’s demand that the United States endorse a more independent investigation. The International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) is a body set up under the Geneva Conventions that can investigate violations of international humanitarian law, but only if the countries involved give their permission. In this case that would mean extracting the blessings of both Afghanistan and the United States, which seems unlikely.
The commission is made up of 15 members, elected by the 76 countries that recognize its authority. Neither the United States nor Afghanistan is among the 76. The commission was created in 1991 but has never been used.
At a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday, Dr. Liu said that patients at the Kunduz hospital burned in their beds, and that doctors, nurses and other staff members were killed as they worked. “Our colleagues had to operate on each other,” she said. “One of our doctors died on an improvised operating table — an office desk — while his colleagues tried to save his life.”
Jason Cone, the executive director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States, said that the organization’s staff called the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the bombardment of the hospital. Mr. Cone would not discuss the contents of the calls, saying that Doctors Without Borders wanted to preserve the privileged nature of its communications with the government.
But he did say that the chairman’s office was the same office to which MSF had provided GPS coordinates for the hospital on Sept. 30. The group also provided the same GPS coordinates to the American-led coalition in Afghanistan on Sept. 29.
Mr. Cone could not say who or what office at the American-led coalition in Afghanistan was contacted during the attack.
“All we know is that our one hospital was struck repeatedly after we told them where we were located, and called them in desperation to stop the attack,” he said.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday in Kabul, MSF’s General Director, Christopher Stokes, reiterated the group’s demand for the probe, saying it would be important and a precedent for non-government organizations working in conflict zones worldwide.
Stokes said MSF wanted the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission “to get the facts of what happened, the truth.”
The IHFFC is based in the Swiss capital, Bern. It is made up of diplomats, legal experts, doctors and some former military officials from nine European countries, including Britain and Russia. Created after the Gulf War in 1991, the commission has never deployed a fact-finding mission.
Médecins Sans Frontières, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization that provides medical aid in conflict zones, is awaiting responses to letters it sent Tuesday to 76 countries that signed Article 90 of the additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, seeking to mobilize the 15-member commission. MSF says no country has responded yet.
Source: MSF: Enough! Even War Has Rules
What Happened: Download MSF’s Kunduz Air Bombing Fact Sheet (PDF)