On December 12, the United Nations released a “special report” on human rights abuses and international humanitarian law violations that recently occurred in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The report covers the Taliban’s takeover of the city and the government’s retaking of the city, during which time the US bombed a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital on October 3, 2015.
The report, authored by the human rights sections of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), makes clear that civilians bore the brunt of the fortnight of fighting. The report recorded 848 civilian casualties (289 deaths and 559 injured) from September 28 to October 13, but admits that the numbers could be higher. Of what could be confirmed, at least 43 women were killed and 79 injured, and 23 children were killed and 139 injured. An estimated 150,000 residents suffered from food shortages, lack of clean water, and no electricity. More than 13,000 families were displaced. During the fighting, all of Kunduz’s 497 schools were closed, depriving 330,000 children of access to education. Civilians paid a high toll during those two weeks, and the report indicates that all sides fighting in the area were at least partially to blame.
While investigators explored numerous incidents involving Afghan, US, and insurgent forces, one in particular stands out: the hour-and-a-half long American airstrike against the MSF hospital in Kunduz that left dozens of unarmed people dead and wounded.
The report makes the following key findings with respect to that bombing:
- There was no fighting in the vicinity of the hospital at the time of the US’s AC-130 bombing on October 3, 2015 that left at least 30 people dead and 37 injured. (MSF now claims 42 have died.)
- MSF was providing treatment to wounded Taliban members at the time of attack, which may have drawn the resentment of Afghan security forces. Despite this, providing medical care to the war-wounded is a lawful act and not a justification for attack.
- No information was found that the US provided due warning to the hospital prior to the bombing, as may have been required by international humanitarian law. No information was found that the US took feasible precautions prior to the attack to avoid or at least minimize civilian casualties.
- No information was found that the MSF hospital was being used for any military purpose.
These findings are extremely troubling, especially if the US knew it was attacking the hospital. But it’s also troubling if, as the US and NATO have so far insisted, the US carried out the attack without knowing what it was striking with sufficient certainly.
Human Rights Watch, concerned about both possibilities, recently wrote to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter calling for an independent criminal investigation. The letter highlighted, among several issues, inconsistent public reporting and statements by US and Afghan officials that call into question the claim that US personnel didn’t know they were attacking the hospital.
It’s notable that US forces were unwilling to respond to UNAMA’s questions about the hospital bombing, insisting that UNAMA’s questions “will be answered by the various NATO/RS [Resolute Support], US national, and Afghan inquiries.” But if the US wants to learn as much as possible about what went wrong, it should answer UNAMA’s questions, with the important limitation that if the US is pursuing individual accountability then this may restrict some of what the US can disclose to UNAMA.
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Some, including Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), have leveled unfounded accusations that the UN doesn’t document Taliban abuses and that the UN could not conduct a “fair and balanced” investigation into US actions in Afghanistan. But the recent UNAMA report further underscores just how untrue such accusations are. Even hobbled by the US’s failure to cooperate, the report provides tremendously useful information about the context on the ground in Kunduz during the two week’s worth of fighting for control of the city. Further, UNAMA showed that it is more than willing to listen to all sides and apportion blame (or provide explanations) where the investigation indicates it should.
In addition to the hospital bombing, the report covers a wide array of issues while humbly admitting that many of its findings are preliminary, laying out the security and logistical constraints that hampered its investigation, including not being able to make on-sight visits.
Despite these obstacles, UNAMA investigators conducted 326 interviews with victims, witnesses, medical practitioners, community leaders, and government officials. In November, UNAMA also met with Taliban representatives and discussed allegations of abuse.
The majority of casualties were from ground fighting and “could not be attributed solely to one party.” The report also presents contradictory information where conflicting accounts could not be resolved. Both of these are commendable concessions that add credibility to they way UNAMA conducts its investigations.
What’s more, the report attributes blame where it can based on the reliable reports it received. For example, it indicates that: the Taliban stole and destroyed private property; Taliban and Afghan forces both desecrated the deceased; the Taliban used improvised explosive devises that resulted in civilian casualties; two Afghan airstrikes caused civilian casualties; the US airstrike on the MSF hospital caused significant civilian casualties and harm; the Taliban deliberately killed civilians; the Taliban abducted civilian men; the Taliban systematically targeted civil society and government workers; and the Taliban used child soldiers. The report also details initial allegations of violence against women and girls that warrant additional investigation.
Many of these findings support those in a similar report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
All told, the UNAMA report demonstrates its impartial human rights reporting skills, provides a clear picture of the civilian suffering caused by the Taliban’s attack on Kunduz and the Afghan/US counteroffensive, and stands as a missed opportunity for the US to have demonstrated a stronger commitment to transparency and accountability by answering the UNAMA’s questions about the MSF attack.
To counter this last point, the US now needs to work especially hard to fulfill UNAMA’s recommendations to ensure its investigation is independent, impartial, prompt, transparent, and effective; that the investigation leads, where appropriate, to individual accountability; that the findings be made public; and that the US undertakes reforms to ensure better operational practices, compensation, and support to victims and their families.