COLUMN: Apologies aren’t enough for the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital bombing

“War crime.”

That’s how Médecins Sans Frontières, known in English as Doctors without Borders, describes the Oct. 3 aerial attack on an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that left 22 people dead.

Some of the patients were burned alive in their beds, according to www.afghanistan-analysts.org. Thirty-seven other people were injured in the attack.

The airstrikes were carried out by United States forces and lasted for longer than an hour. The attack continued for more than 30 minutes after MSF desperately telephoned U.S. and Afghan military officials to let them know a
hospital was being bombed.

Both governments had previously been informed of the hospital’s coordinates to prevent any accidental bombings of the hospital buildings, according to www.afghanistan-analysts.org.

With the hospital severely damaged and no longer functioning, northeastern Afghanistan is now without the life-saving medical services MSF had previously been able to offer free of charge.

In response to all this death and destruction, President Obama apologized to Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of MSF, by telephone for the hospital being “mistakenly struck,” according to the New York Times.

But the apology rings hollow. Saying you’re sorry is only the first step in making things right. If President Obama is serious about making amends for the bombing, he needs to back up his words with actions.

MSF has asked the U.S. and Afghanistan to consent to an independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, but so far U.S. officials have refused, instead announcing that the U.S. would be investigating the incident “in co-ordination with the Afghan government,” according to a U.S. Department of 
Defense press release.

Because neither the U.S. nor Afghanistan have made a formal declaration accepting the authority of the IHFFC, the Commission is powerless to open an investigation.

Why are President Obama and other U.S. and Afghan officials so resistant to consenting to a third-party investigation by the IHFFC? Could it be because they have something to hide?

On the Afghan side, government officials have said terrorists were hiding in the hospital and using the building as a shelter, implying that the airstrikes were some sort of deliberate anti-terror maneuver and therefore justified.

But MSF insists there were “no armed combatants or fighting in the compound prior to the airstrike.”

Liu has called the bombing “an attack on the Geneva Conventions,” and indeed, the conventions protect medical personnel and civilian hospitals, like the MSF hospital in Kunduz, from attack.

Are military authorities attempting to shield themselves from the potential prosecution for war crimes? Might this explain their insistence on an internal investigation?

An apology that is not backed up by a serious attempt to right the wrongs being apologized for is no apology at all. There is no excuse for bombing a civilian hospital, and there is no excuse for refusing an independent, 
third-party investigation.

I call on the president to agree to the investigation and cooperate fully with the IHFFC. President Obama, do the right thing. The victims of this attack deserve that much.

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