This article, by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada executive director Stephen Cornish, first appeared in the Globe and Mail newspaper:
Last Saturday,October 3, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontères (MSF) suffered one of the worst tragedies in our 44-year history when a series of aerial bombardments destroyed our hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The attacks killed 12 of our medical staff and 10 patients – 22 people in all, including three children.
An MSF nurse at the hospital recounted the horror he witnessed: “In the intensive care unit, six patients were burning in their beds. A patient was there on the operating table, dead, in the middle of the destruction. We couldn’t find our staff.” His account captured the agony and confusion that follows such senseless tragedies. “These are people who had been working hard for months in the hospital to help people,” he said. “And now they are dead.”
When the news of last Saturday’s events broke, the immediate reaction throughout our organization was one of shock and sorrow. We lost friends, co-workers and patients. But as the facts emerged during the early hours of the morning, our sadness soon turned to anger.
The Geneva Conventions must be upheld
We learned that US forces carried out successive and precise airstrikes on the nerve centre of the hospital; that mere days before the attack, Doctors Without Borders had confirmed the precise GPS coordinates of our facility to both Afghan and Coalition authorities; that during the bombing, we contacted officials in Afghanistan and in Washington, D.C. to tell them we were being attacked — and still the airstrikes kept coming.
Since then, we have heard conflicting explanations from the US commanders responsible for the incident - none of which change the fact that any attack on a functioning hospital by a party to a conflict violates the rules of war. The intentional bombing of a hospital is a war crime.
Limits to war are not an abstract concept. The Geneva Conventions establish the rules of war and entitle humanitarian actors such as Doctors Without Borders to provide impartial lifesaving medical care to patients affected by conflict, whether they are civilians or combatants who are wounded and sick. In international humanitarian law, all parties to the conflict must distinguish between civilian and military structures. To merely chalk up civilian deaths as “collateral damage” is not only dehumanizing, it violates the rules of war.
Medical care under fire
Last week’s destruction was a flagrant assault on our front-line health workers and patients. But it was not the first. Doctors Without Borders has seen medical care under fire with disturbing frequency in recent years, as warring parties have targeted health facilities with audacity, malice and impunity.
In 2015 alone, our staff and facilities in Sudan, Central African Republic and Syria have been brazenly targeted. Members of our teams have been threatened, attacked and kidnapped — and our organization is far from the only one to have been affected. Medical caregivers around the world have given their lives while working to save others, even as respect for the rules of war has faltered and failed to protect them.
Attacks on health care providers must stop, whether they are carried out by belligerents in Syria, by Sudanese war planes, or by the US military and its Coalition allies. That is why Doctors Without Borders is calling for an independent investigation into the events of last weekend. We are seeking to have the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFCC) investigate the Kunduz attacks. Canada and other state parties to the IFHCC can request the Commission to activate an inquiry to establish the truth and reassert the protected status of hospitals and civilians in conflict.
The tragic, violent deaths during last week’s events in Kunduz can’t simply be explained away as a “mistake”. We insist that those responsible for the attack be held accountable for their actions — and that caregivers and their patients receive the protection they are guaranteed under international humanitarian law.
This has been an exceedingly difficult week. Doctors Without Borders had to pull out of Kunduz, leaving tens of thousands of people and the whole of northeastern Afghanistan without any life-saving medical surgery facility. Our doctors and caregivers are not martyrs, we are protected humanitarian actors and our patients and health structures are protected by law from military attack. The future of humanitarian action everywhere depends on it.
Stephen Cornish is the executive director of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada. You can follow him on Twitter at @Stephen_Cornish.