An independent fact-finding commission said Wednesday that it is prepared to conduct an investigation into whether the U.S. committed a war crime by bombing a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz earlier this month.
The Oct. 3 bombing killed 22 people, including 12 Doctors Without Borders staff members. The group has called the attack a war crime.
The International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, created in 1991 by an addendum to the Geneva Conventions, announced on Wednesday that it had sent letters to both the U.S. and Afghan governments offering its services. But the group cannot begin an investigation without permission from both states -- which neither the U.S. nor Afghanistan is likely to grant.
Neither country is party to the IHFFC, whose investigative powers have yet to be called into use by any country, even those that recognize the body. Although it is unlikely that the Kunduz bombing will be the commission's debut case, the announcement is significant in itself because it will force the U.S. to take an overt position on an independent investigation.
Doctors Without Borders has demanded an outside investigation of the bombing, but the U.S. has made no indication that it supports such an inquiry. “Our position is that we share the international community’s desire -- and particularly the desire on the part of Doctors Without Borders -- to get a full accounting of what exactly transpired,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last week, noting that the Defense Department, NATO and a joint U.S.-Afghan team have their own investigations underway.
When President Barack Obama called to apologize to Doctors Without Borders International President Dr. Joanne Liu last week, he promised that the Pentagon investigation would be “transparent, thorough and objective,” but the read-out of the phone call did not mention an outside review.
Liu was not convinced by Obama’s assurances. "We have received apologies and condolences, but this is not enough," she said in a statement Wednesday. "We are still in the dark about why a well-known hospital full of patients and medical staff was repeatedly bombarded for more than an hour. We need to understand what happened and why."
In a vivid account of the early-morning incident, Lajos Zoltan, one of the nurses on-site, described watching six patients burning in their beds. Doctors Without Borders has claimed that it provided the hospital's GPS coordinates to both the U.S. and Afghan militaries days before the bombing.
Liu suggested in her statement that the IHFFC's overture offered Obama an opportunity to demonstrate America's commitment to the Geneva Conventions. "We need to know if the rules of war have changed, not just for Kunduz, but for the safety of our teams working in frontline hospitals all over the world," she said.
Still, the U.S. has no legal obligation to give consent to the IHFFC and could insist that the three internal investigations are sufficient.
“States rarely want outsiders to judge their military actions and decision-making procedures,” said Jonathan Horowitz, the legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, where he focuses on national security and counterterrorism. “The problem is, all this secrecy and resistance to outside review makes any investigation susceptible to lacking independence, transparency, and impartiality.”