The Cable

Obama Apologizes to Doctors Without Borders But Is Silent on Independent Probe

President Barack Obama apologized to the president of Doctors Without Borders for the deadly U.S. attack on a hospital in Afghanistan that killed at least 22 people. But the Obama administration would not say whether it would support the group’s efforts to launch an independent investigation of the incident at a never-before used international commission in Switzerland.

US Press Secretary Josh Earnest speaks at the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on October 5, 2015.   AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US Press Secretary Josh Earnest speaks at the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on October 5, 2015. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama apologized to the president of Doctors Without Borders for the U.S. attack on a hospital in Afghanistan that killed 22 people. But the Obama administration would not say whether it would support the group’s efforts to launch an independent investigation of the incident at a never-before used international commission in Switzerland.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama offered his condolences to the group’s international president, Joanne Liu, and said the president assured her there would be an objective accounting of the prolonged American air assault on the hospital. Obama also promised the group that, if necessary, changes would be made to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

Still, the humanitarian relief group made clear that a U.S. internal investigation wouldn’t be enough to fully explain the chain of mistakes that led to the attack on its facility in the Afghan city of Kunduz, which came under sustained fire from a AC-130 gunship amid U.S. efforts to reverse Taliban gains in the town.

“We need an establishment of facts from a body that’s not going to have a conflict of interest in the matter,” Doctors Without Borders Executive Director Jason Cone told Foreign Policy in an interview, referring to the Pentagon. “That’s essential to making a final determination to whether or not there was a war crime.” Separate investigations are being carried out into the incident by the U.S. Department of Defense and NATO.

The group, also known by its French name Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF, is calling for the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to investigate the Afghanistan bombing. The commission, established in 1991 under the Geneva Conventions, was set up to investigate egregious breaches of international humanitarian law, but has never been used.

MSF needs one of the commission’s 76 signatory governments to activate the commission — as well as the consent of the United States and Afghanistan for the inquiry to begin. The State Department and the Afghan Embassy in Washington did not respond to questions about whether they would offer their consent.

“The commission is supposed to be the guardian of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention and those are the principles that we operate under as a humanitarian organization,” said Cone. “It was established for this very purpose. That’s why we didn’t go to the International Criminal Court.”

He noted that it was “unfortunate” that no governments have ever called for the commission’s activation in the past.

MSF spent the last 24 hours sending out requests for a probe to the 76 signatories of the commission and has yet to hear any responses.  Those 76 countries include some adversaries of the United States, such as Russia, which may be more inclined to support an investigation than the U.S. allies in the group, such as Britain and Germany. The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on its position for launching an outside probe.

“We’re less concerned about who steps forward — that’s geopolitics, that’s not our concern,” said Cone.  “Whoever activates it, it doesn’t affect how the investigation is going to be conducted. It’s still going to be an independent investigation.”

There are currently two investigations into the incident in the works. One is being led by the U.S. Army, helmed by U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Richard C. Kim, and one by the Operation Resolute Support command, which is the name of the 14,000-troop NATO mission in Afghanistan. There is no word from Kabul or the Defense Department who is leading that second investigation.

There were reports earlier in the week that Kim had been unable to visit the site in Kunduz due to ongoing fighting, and Defense Department spokesman Maj. Roger Cabiness could only say that he is “actively investigating the incident.” 

The second investigation is being conducted by a casualty assessment team, which is a standard procedure the military command follows whenever there is an allegation of civilian casualties. The team is comprised of investigators from the NATO alliance, and includes an Afghan contingent, according to Cabiness.

Pentagon reporter Paul McLeary contributed to this report

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