There is "strong" evidence that the U.S. military attack on a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan two months ago constituted a criminal act, and should be investigated as such, Human Rights Watch said Monday in a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (pdf).
"The attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz involved possible war crimes," said the advocacy group's Washington director Sarah Margon. "The ongoing U.S. inquiry will not be credible unless it considers criminal liability and is protected from improper command influence."
The 30-minute airstrike on October 3 killed at least 42 patients and staff and wounded several others. In November, the Pentagon released the summary of its internal inquiry into the bombing, which blamed the attack on "human error"—a conclusion that human rights groups rejected and which MSF said provided "more questions than answers."
The Pentagon's report, as well as the military's "poor record prosecuting alleged war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq," demonstrates the urgent need for an investigation conducted by an independent source, rather than the government or the army, HRW said.
"It is essential that you publicly and explicitly clarify that ongoing investigations into the Kunduz attack include a thorough inquiry that considers the possible criminal liability of U.S. personnel, including at the command level," the letter to Carter states. "We believe that there is a strong basis for determining that criminal liability exists.... We also call on you to take all necessary steps to ensure that the investigation is independent and not subject to undue command influence."
Carter said the Pentagon's inquiry was "thorough and unbiased," but numerous critics questioned the legitimacy of the government investigating itself for possible war crimes.
"U.S. military commanders who oversaw the Kunduz military operation shouldn't be deciding who gets prosecuted for the MSF hospital attack," Margon said Monday. "The U.S. government should recognize that its resolution of this horrific incident will have repercussions for U.S. military operations far beyond Afghanistan."
MSF has also repeatedly called for the U.S. government to submit to an inquiry conducted by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, which was created under the Geneva Conventions in 1991. The commission has said it was ready to carry out an investigation, but could only do so with the U.S. government's consent.