Even War Has Rules

The U.S. bombing in October on the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz decimated the only hospital of its kind in northeastern Afghanistan. As the airstrike hit the hospital's main unit, patients were burned alive in their beds, doctors had to operate on each other and many others were severely wounded. When all was said and done 12 MSF staff and 10 of their patients died.

Until the incident is investigated, the exact circumstances under which the hospital was hit are open to speculation. MSF insisted that they were routinely providing GPS coordinates of the hospital to the Afghan government and the U.S. military, even as the attack continued for half an hour.

One thing is clear -- in many of today's armed conflicts airstrikes are increasingly being used, and when civilians are killed, there is an absence of accountability.

In Yemen, all parties to the conflict appear to be demonstrating total disregard for international humanitarian law, the rules that govern war as set out in the Geneva Conventions. A Saudi-led coalition, supported by the US, has killed over five thousand Yemenis, and just last month an American-armed Saudi warplane hit a wedding party in the coastal town of Mokha, killing 130 civilians. In response, the Saudis wrote off the criticism saying "this is warfare," and the White House expressed deep concern yet continued to provide logistical and intelligence support to military operations.

In Syria, human rights groups have reported civilian casualties in Aleppo as a result of Russian airstrikes. Moscow responded to the allegations by continuing its bombing campaign and denying any civilian casualties whatsoever.

Last week, President Obama called and apologized to the Dr. Joanne Liu, the head of MSF, for the bombing and pledged full cooperation with the joint investigations being conducted by NATO and the Afghan government. But that's not good enough.

In Yemen, the UN Human Rights Council endorsed a Saudi resolution supporting an investigation by the Government of Yemen, which simply will not hold its patron Saudi Arabia to account, rather than a Dutch proposal to initiate an independent, international mechanism. Again, not good enough.

What's needed in conflicts of today is accountability -- a real reckoning of who did what and real consequences for those who were at fault.

MSF is asking for an independent investigation led by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC), which makes more sense than an investigation led by the very parties responsible for the bombing in the first place. Frankly, the call for independent, outside investigations of alleged war crimes is long overdue.

The IHFFC, though it has never been utilized since its establishment under the Geneva Conventions, may offer a better way to investigate the bombing. Since it operates with a different set of incentives, it is better equipped to investigate war crimes more impartially and credibly. Assuming the governments involved cooperate fully, of course.

In the conflicts of today, tragedies like the bombing of MSF's hospital are all too common. And while the Geneva Conventions are supposed to soften war's horrific impact for civilians, they are an empty promise to civilians whose desire for justice and accountability are dismissed.

Oxfam stands with MSF in its call for an independent investigation. By agreeing to the IHFFC's involvement, the U.S. and Afghan governments will ensure an impartial accounting of what exactly took place that morning.

Most importantly, for the millions of civilians killed, injured and displaced by war crimes each year, their decisions will either mark the beginning of a new era of accountability, or signal business as usual. It's past time we turned a page from the rampant impunity with which wars are fought today.

After all, 66 years after the Four Geneva Conventions were adopted, war still has rules.