Considering Civilian Casualties of Airstrikes
October 5, 2015
The article “Airstrike Hits Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan” by Alissa J. Run addresses the United States airstrike that damaged a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing at least nineteen people and injuring thirty-seven in what was stated to be possible collateral damage. The United Nations and various humanitarian organizations have condemned this action. It renews the discussion of civilian casualties caused by United States airstrikes. This event raises the question of how to combat a terrorist organization with minimum loss of civilian life.
Kunduz has been this site of conflict between Afghan government forces, backed by the United States, and the Taliban. In response to the Taliban’s capture of the city on Monday, the United States military began airstrikes, assisting Afghan government forces. The Doctors Without Borders, also known by their acronym of MSF, operated a hospital in the city, providing medical care to all injured in the conflict. Its specific location was repeatedly given to United States and Afghan military officials. In the early hours of October 3rd, bombs began falling on the hospital, continuing for thirty to forty minutes despite calls alerting officials of the situation. Reports regarding the instigation of the bombing vary and are under investigation. The United States and Afghan forces said there was fighting around and shooting from within the hospital. MSF doctors and nurses stated there was no fighting in the immediate vicinity, and the organization’s director asserted that there were no Taliban fighters in the facility at the time of the strike. Regardless of the presence of lack of Taliban soldiers, civilian humanitarians and their patients were killed and injured in the airstrike, drawing criticism and calls for a transparent investigation from the international community.
The United Nations high commissioner for human rights described the airstrike as “utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal.” It may have been a violation of the Geneva Conventions and Protocols, but depends on how they can be applied. The relevance of the Geneva Conventions and Protocols becomes challenging when a non-state terrorist organization is involved. Convention IV, Article 2 states the Convention applies in all cases of occupation of territory of a High Contracting Party. This appears to imply that the Convention applies in this situation, as the territory of Afghanistan was occupied. Protocol I states in its first article that it follows the same rules of applicability as the Conventions. However, the United States has only signed Protocol I and not yet ratified it; this raises questions of how the Protocol affects the United States, but also whether or not the Protocol should be followed regardless of a lack of internal ratification. Article 1 of the Protocol states that even in cases where it does not apply, civilians are still protected under common international law, the principles of humanity, and the public conscious. The specific applicability of the Conventions and Protocol may be muddled by the involvement of a non-state organization and incomplete ratification, but the MSF faculty and their patients should have been protected by common law and the public conscious.
If the Geneva Conventions and Protocols can be applied to the airstrike, it could be a violation of them. Protocol I mandates parties distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives, forbidding direct and indiscriminate attacks on civilian objects. One definition of an indiscriminate attack is an attack that anticipates civilian damage without anticipation of a concrete and direct military gain. Investigations will clarify how these rules will apply. If insufficient evidence of fighting in the near vicinity of the hospital is found and no adequate anticipation of concrete, direct military gain is demonstrated by the United States to justify the strike, it may be a violation of the Geneva Conventions and Protocol, and likely of public conscious. If evidence of conflict is found, it raises questions of the value and morality of engaging terrorists when civilian casualties are expected. Significant context is added with the United States’ history of causing civilian casualties in Afghanistan with airstrikes. Until investigations reveal more information, no concrete conclusions can be drawn.
Public conscious, reflected in the statements of officials, reflects grief and demands justice. Common ethics dictate that the bombing of a humanitarian hospital is immoral. However, complications arise with conflicting reports, and applications of law cannot be concluded until investigations are complete. While these are underway, the tragic event will renew conversation regarding the use of airstrikes by the United States throughout the Middle East and how best to prevent the deaths and injuries of civilians while effectively combatting terrorist organizations.
Geneva Convention (IV)
Geneva Protocol (I)