A U.S. airstrike on an Afghan hospital that left 22 dead was an "attack on the Geneva Conventions" and warrants an independent fact-finding mission to establish if it amounts to a war crime, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Wednesday.
The medical charity said that a commission, which can be set up at the request of a single state under international law, should be established to gather facts and evidence from the United States, NATO and Afghanistan.
Only then would MSF decide whether to bring criminal charges for loss of life and damage, it added. "If we let this go, we are basically giving a blank check to any countries at war," MSF International President Joanne Liu told a news briefing in Geneva. “There is no commitment to an independent investigation yet.”
The comments coincide with a report in the New York Times suggesting that Gen. John Campbell, the U.S.’s top commander in Afghanistan, believes that American troops probably did not follow its own rules in calling in the airstrike in Kunduz. The paper cited “officials with direct knowledge of the general’s thinking” as the source for its report.
On Wednesday afternoon, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that President Barack Obama called Liu to apologize for the hospital attack.
"Acknowledging the great respect he has for the important and lifesaving work that MSF does for vulnerable communities in Afghanistan and around the world, the President assured Dr. Liu of his expectation 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 pledged full cooperation with the joint investigations being conducted with NATO and the Afghan Government," a White House press release on the call said.
Meanwhile, MSF said it is awaiting responses to letters it sent Tuesday to 76 countries that have signed Article 90 of the additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, seeking to mobilize a 15-member commission of independent experts that was set up in 1991. In this case, the United States and Afghanistan — which are not signatories — must also give their consent to such a mission.
It says it has had no response yet from the United States or any other countries.
Also on Wednesday, Jason Cone, the executive director for Doctors Without Borders in the U.S., said hospital staff in Kunduz did "not receive any warning of a strike” and that things were “calm inside the compound prior to the strikes."
Cone also conceded it was "very possible" that MSF staff was treating "combatants," but said "once a combatant is wounded, they are a civilian."
The fresh call for an independent investigation comes four days after the airstrike at a hospital in Kunduz. Twelve MSF workers were among those killed. At the time, the hospital had 105 patients and caretakers and more than 80 international and Afghan staffers, MSF said.
MSF has said Afghan and coalition troops were fully aware of the exact location of the hospital, having been given GPS coordinates of the facility, which had been providing care for four years.
It added that despite frantic calls to military officials in Kabul and Washington, the main building housing the intensive care unit and emergency rooms was “repeatedly, very precisely” hit almost every 15 minutes for more than an hour.
The U.S. had said that the raid was requested by Afghan forces, who said they had come under fire from Taliban fighters from locations within the hospital compound — a claim MSF has rejected.
But on Tuesday, Washington’s top military man in Afghanistan seemingly accepted that U.S chain of command were to blame for what he described as a “mistake.”
Gen. Campbell told a congressional committee: “To be clear, the decision to provide aerial fire was a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command.”
Stressing that the U.S. airstrikes on the hospital — which has drawn the ire of the United Nations and MSF — was unintentional, Campbell said, “A hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”
But such acceptance of responsibility has done little to mitigate anger from MSF, and others within the international community — the U.N. has said the attack was “inexcusable.”
And Washington has so far not been receptive to calls for an international independent investigation, instead pointing to ongoing inquiries by he U.S. Department of Defense, NATO and the Afghan government.
“Today we say ‘Enough, even war has rules,’” Liu said Wednesday
“We cannot rely on internal investigations by U.S, NATO and Afghan forces.”
Al Jazeera and wire services