Doctors Without Borders Ignored Geneva Rules Before US Air Attack

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Doctors Without Borders flew no internationally-recognized medical insignia on the rooftop of its Kunduz, Afghanistan, hospital that was mistakenly attacked October 3 by U.S. military aircraft, according to a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation.

The relief group – also known as Medecins Sans Frontiers – failed to display a Red Cross, Red Crescent or Red Lion and Sun, the universally recognized medical emblems since 1949 that identify buildings that must be protected to attacking aircraft during wartime under Article 38 of the Geneva Accords.

“Doctors Without Borders marked the roof of the building in the week prior to the Oct. 3 airstrikes,” said Tim Shenk, a DWB press officer. “The markings are hospital flags with the MSF logo.”

The DWB hospital flag with the organization’s logo is not among the internationally recognized emblems that warn attacking pilots to avoid the marked structure.

The DWB refused to produce any aerial photos of the building or describe the size of the purported flags.

An earlier aerial photo taken months before the attack shows a barren rooftop without any medical emblem or insignia.

The lack of proper roof marking may weaken the doctors’ charge that the October 3 attack by U.S. Air Force AC-130 gun ships was deliberate and a possible “war crime.”

Twenty-two staff and patients died during the attack.  The Pentagon said families of victims of the attack will be compensated.

Some of those inside the hospital may have died instantly, while others reportedly died as colleagues tried to administer care.  At least six patients burned to death in the intensive care unit.

Many Taliban insurgents were reported to be patients at the hospital and there were also reports of Taliban fighters in the vicinity of the medical compound at the time of the attack. International law prohibits firing on any medical facilities during war.

Undermining U.S. and Afghan credibility is the fact that four different explanations have been offered for the attack. A Pentagon investigation is underway.

Article 38, of the 1949 Geneva Convention was designed to protect civilians in war zones, including the “protected” sites such as hospitals.

Article 38 requires medical personnel to display “distinctive emblems indicating medical units” and that they must be “clearly visible to the enemy land, air or naval forces, in order to obviate the possibility of any hostile action.”

The convention stipulates that “the Red Cross, the Red Crescent or the Red Lion and Sun on a white ground … are recognized by the terms of the present convention.”

“The significance of Article 38 is that it this is a protected facility,” stated David Rivkin, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who has practiced before the International Court of Justice.

“If the facilities had the emblem of protected status, most likely that attack would not have been carried out,” Rivkin said. He previously served as White House Counsel and Deputy Director in the U.S. Department of Justice under President Reagan.

“Should they mark their stuff?  If they don’t want to get bombed, they should mark it really well,” said Brian Gould, a veteran who served for 20 years in the U.S. Special Forces.

News reports from Kabul, Afghanistan also cast doubt over another MSF claim that the group provided hospital location “coordinates” to the U.S. military command.

“The relief group has declined to provide details of exactly who it alerted,” the Washington Post reported from Kabul over the weekend. “The office of the Joint Staff says it has not yet located an individual who received that information,” the Post said.

Similarly, MSF declined to respond to questions submitted by DCNF about when they notified military authorities of the hospital’s co-ordinates and who in the U.S. command structure they told.

A counter-insurgency advisor to U.S. forces in Afghanistan told the DCNF any “coordinates” given to the military would be of little use if a real firefight was underway.

“If they gave them coordinates or not, it’s immaterial.  When there’s a firefight overhead and you see the map from the ground in real time, it doesn’t pop up as a grid map that says ‘hospital,’” he said. He declined to be identified as he is on active duty.

The Kunduz building was not a temporary makeshift facility but a large trauma center operated by MSF for four years, according to Shenk.  MSF says it has served 22,000 patients in Kunduz since its operations began.

Even if its organizational flag was flying, it did not conform to Article 38 rules.

“As far as what qualifies as an emblem for Article 38 purposes it has to be universally recognized,” Rivkin said.  “It cannot be something that’s obscure.  It has to be immediately recognizable.  If they had the right emblem, they (military forces) would have seen it.”

Gould, who served in Europe and Africa in Special Forces commands, said “the big Red Cross on the white background is always acceptable. Every country obeys that.  If you have a big Red Cross on a building, you’re in.”

A medical emblem delays any ordered attack, said a former 20-year Navy F-14 Tomcat radar intercept officer on condition of anonymity.

“If pilots see a red crescent on a target, they radio delay to the ground, then radio higher for confirmation to [Central Command],” said the former officer, who taught at the Navy War College and has flown in both strike and close air support missions.

Gould said that its possible MSF chose not to install a Red Cross or Red Crescent for fear of retaliation by the Taliban. “That big red flag on the top of your building is a big target for the Taliban.”

He said “Doctors without Borders does not historically do a good job of communicating with the military because the other side says ‘you’re working with the military’ and then you’re a bigger target.”

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