"The events that night in Kunduz were both a shock and a turning point. That the United States military would openly violate one of the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law by attacking civilians in a medical facility was appalling. But it was also just the beginning. In the 12 months since, violent attacks on civilians and medical facilities in war zones have reached unprecedented and unconscionable levels."
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the US military airstrikes on the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in which 42 people lost their lives. The attack was a violation of the rules of war, which require military forces to protect medical facilities and personnel in war zones.
In the following op-ed, which was first published in the Globe and Mail, MSF Canada President Dr. Heather Culbert and Executive Director Stephen Cornish look back at the horrific events of October 3, 2015, and at the increasing number of violations of international humanitarian law that have taken place in the 12 months that followed.
By Dr. Heather Culbert, President of MSF Canada, and Stephen Cornish, Executive Director of MSF Canada
One year ago, on the night of October 3, an American warplane attacked a compound in Kunduz, Afghanistan, a city that had recently become a battleground between Taliban rebels and US-supported government forces. The plane fired multiple missile strikes into its target, destroying the building and killing 42 of the people trapped inside.
The object of this military assault was not a Taliban base, but a hospital — a facility operated by Doctors Without Borders and the only one in the region capable of providing tertiary surgical care. The people killed in the US attack were doctors, nurses, patients and caregivers. Some had come to the hospital in need of medical attention, others were there to provide it; all became caught up in hellfire, with many incinerated in their hospital beds or shot from above while they fled.
The events that night in Kunduz were both a shock and a turning point. That the United States military would openly violate one of the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law by attacking civilians in a medical facility was appalling. But it was also just the beginning. In the 12 months since, violent attacks on civilians and medical facilities in war zones have reached unprecedented and unconscionable levels.
Unprecedented military attacks against civilians
More civilians have been killed by military forces in the last six months than in the entire year prior. In the city of Taiz in Yemen — where there is an ongoing civil war between forces backed by foreign powers including Iran, the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia — between 50-60% of the patients treated by Doctors Without Borders for war wounds have not been combatants, but civilians. In Syria, warring parties use a double-tap strategy: they bomb a hospital, then bomb it again once emergency personnel have arrived, in order to maximize trauma. In July alone, 43 hospitals in Syria were attacked, or more than one a day. In Afghanistan, 2016 saw a record number of civilians — 5,100, including 1,500 children — killed or injured by violence in the first six months alone.
Whether due to direct targeting, collateral damage or even simple negligence, when taken together these horrific incidents amount to nothing short of collective punishment of civilians caught up in conflict. We are witnessing a world in which flagrant violations of international humanitarian law seem now to form part of a careless if not considered routine military strategy. This is being further normalized by hypocrisy from world leaders, who lament the loss of life in public while failing to use their power to stop the continuing attacks.
Next week’s one-year anniversary of the Kunduz tragedy also marks the five-month anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2286, which calls for greater protection of civilians, medical facilities and personnel in war zones. Instead of seeing a decrease in atrocities since the resolution was unanimously passed last May, we have instead seen a relentless continuation — especially in Syria and Yemen, where four out of five permanent members of the Security Council are actively involved.
These five permanent members of the UNSC bear special responsibility for this deplorable trend. They have either violated the rules of war themselves, or they have allowed their allies and proxies to do so without consequence. Perhaps if their decision-makers, who pay lip service to international humanitarian law while failing to uphold it, were to see first-hand the blood and destruction left behind after a civilian hospital, school or marketplace is bombed, they would show the courage and conviction to match their rhetoric with action, and actually hold those who violate the rules of war to account.
Time for action, not just words
On September 28, the Security Council met to discuss recommendations for enforcing Resolution 2286. It was a necessary recognition that the very possibility of humanitarian action — of delivering medical care in conflict zones, of protecting the most vulnerable from war’s devastation, of acknowledging the existence of such a thing as the rules of war — is under threat.
The UN Secretary General put forward recommendations to ensure better accountability and enhance the protection laid out in Resolution 2286, including a measure to ensure that those who violate international law relating to the protection of medical care in armed conflict are held accountable.
These recommendations, and the Secretary General’s calls to defend international humanitarian law, are welcome, but we have had promises and fine statements before. The real test will be to see whether they will finally be matched with facts on the ground. If those who gathered at the Security Council last week are now willing to follow up their words and gestures with real action, then the Kunduz attack may be remembered as an isolated tragedy rather than a tragic turning point. We have the power to stop the killing if we choose, if we hold our leaders to account.
Dr. Heather Culbert is the President of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada. Stephen Cornish is the Executive Director of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada.
- Read MSF International President Dr. Joanne Liu's statement to the UN Security Council about protecting medical personnel in conflict zones
- Support #NotATarget, MSF Canada's social media campaign against attacks on civilian spaces in conflict