A leading human rights organization is urging Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to investigate the U.S. bombing of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan as a potential war crime.
“Your statements following the Kunduz attack expressed clear recognition not only of the seriousness of the incident but of the need for accountability,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in a letter to Carter, released Monday.
“The international community, including the people of Afghanistan, are watching closely to see what credible, impartial and transparent steps are taken to uphold this commitment. Anything short of that will not only be an affront to the lives lost at the MSF hospital, but will burden U.S. military operations — and the U.S. government’s commitment to the rule of law — in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world,” she added.
At issue is the Oct. 3 airstrike by U.S. forces that hit a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. The medical organization said 42 staff members, patients and caretakers died in the bombing.
In late November, the Pentagon summarized the findings of its investigation that found the bombing was primarily the result of human error. The airstrike was intended for a government building believed to be controlled by the Taliban, but the electronic systems on the U.S. aircraft malfunctioned and the crew relied on a description of the target, Army Gen. John Campbell has said.
Multiple military officials have been suspended, pending further investigation.
In her letter, Margon argued that the Pentagon’s own summary of its investigation, as well as Doctors Without Borders’ report of the bombing, merit a criminal investigation. Those who are found to have criminal intent, either intentionally or recklessly, would be responsible for a war crime, she added.
Margon also urged that the investigation be independent of influence from the chain of command. Appointing an independent authority to convene courts-martial and creating what’s known as consolidated disposition authority to control referrals of criminal charges could achieve this, she suggested.
“The U.S. military justice system does not have a good record of providing meaningful accountability for alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Margon wrote.
When announcing the Pentagon's findings, Campbell promised the investigation was "thorough and unbiased."
Doctors Without Borders has repeatedly called for an independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, created under the Geneva Conventions to investigate breaches of international humanitarian law.
The United States and Afghanistan both need to consent to such an investigation. So far, neither has.
Some Democratic lawmakers have also called for an independent investigation.