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After Kunduz, we must end impunity for those who break international law

Written by Kevin Watkins


​The air strike that left 22 people dead in the burning rubble of Médecins Sans Frontières’s trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was more than yet another human tragedy on the frontline of a forgotten war. It was an attack on humanitarian values and international law – and the perpetrators must be held to account.

Leave aside for a moment the callous and gratuitously offensive use of the term ‘collateral damage’ to describe the killing of 12 MSF medical staff and 10 patients, including three children. The wider issue at stake is respect for civilian lives.

Based on MSF’s statements it appears military authorities knew the building’s coordinates. They were notified the hospital was under attack, yet continued the bombardment. 

International laws are designed to prevent this type of behavior. The Geneva Conventions, along with a raft of human rights laws and Security Council resolutions, require combatants to protect civilians – and to ensure that hospitals are not subjected to attack.

These principles are currently under open assault. The depraved activities of ISIL and other groups rightly shock the world’s conscience. Yet barrel bombing by the Syrian government and aerial bombardment of civilians in Yemen are no less an attack on international law.

All too often, children are in the front line. Last year, 539 children were killed during Israeli military operations in Gaza, which included attacks on health centres and schools. And from South Sudan to northern Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan, the UN has documented a sickening upsurge in violence targeting children in open defiance of Security Council resolutions.

There is one common theme in this blatant disregard of civilian life – and that theme is the impunity of the perpetrators. The UN issues denunciations. We wring our hands. And we wait for the next tragedy.

The impunity has to end here and now. An internal US military investigation is not enough. The dead and wounded in Kunduz deserve nothing less than a full, impartial and public inquiry through a body convened by the UN.

The humanitarian workers killed in Kunduz represent the best of humanity. They were putting their lives on the line to protect vulnerable people, without discrimination. They stood for values and principles we have a duty to uphold – and their sacrifice must not be in vain.