(New York) – The Afghan government should promptly and thoroughly investigate reports that on February 17, 2016, Afghan Special Forces raided a medical clinic in Wardak province and executed two patients and an 11-year-old caregiver, Human Rights Watch said today. Deliberate attacks on medical facilities and the summary killing of civilians and captured or incapacitated fighters are war crimes, and those responsible should be appropriately prosecuted.
“President Ashraf Ghani needs to send a clear message to the Afghan army that killing hospital patients deserves severe punishment,” said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher. “That means prosecuting any officer who ordered the killings as well as the soldiers who pulled the trigger.”
A Kabul-based spokesman for the Swedish Committee of Afghanistan (SCA), a humanitarian organization that runs the clinic in Day Mirdad district, told Human Rights Watch that at about 11 p.m. on February 17, uniformed Afghan military personnel forced their way into the hospital and dragged away two patients and an 11-year-old child who was in the clinic as a caregiver. The soldiers, identified in the media as Afghan Special Forces, took the three outside the hospital premises and shot them. The hospital treats all people regardless of their political affiliation and so the SCA spokesman would not say if any of the three men were Taliban insurgents.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, hospitals and other medical facilities are protected from attack unless they are being used for acts harmful to the enemy. Such acts do not include treating wounded and sick combatants. Even if a medical facility is being used to carry out harmful acts, such as to store weapons or as a headquarters, a warning with a reasonable time limit must be given before the hospital can be attacked.
The laws of war also protect medical workers and patients from attack. Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which is applicable to the armed conflict in Afghanistan, states that:
[P]ersons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed “hors de combat” by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely.... [P]rohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons [is] violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds.
Summary killings of individuals in custody are war crimes. Commanders who order or otherwise assist, facilitate, aid, or abet the commission of a war crime can also be criminally liable. Governments have an obligation to investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged war crimes by members of their forces.
These allegations come just days after the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) released its latest biannual report on civilian casualties in the ongoing conflict between government forces and the Taliban insurgency. The report charts a record-setting rise in civilian deaths and injuries, and an increase in the number of conflict-related incidents deliberately targeting hospitals, clinics, and health personnel, including armed raids by Afghan Special Forces on medical facilities in conflict areas. UNAMA also documented increased intimidation and threats against healthcare staff and institutions by the Taliban and other non-state armed groups in 2015.
An investigation into the Wardak incident should examine whether foreign armed forces accompanied Afghan forces during the operation. Foreign donors, including the United States, Germany, and Turkey, currently provide “train, advise and assist” support to Afghan troops. These countries, some of which have spent more than a decade training Afghan security forces, should urge the government to impartially investigate the incident and report its findings.
“Foreign donors to the Afghan military should inform President Ghani that they will not underwrite the operations of forces that target protected medical facilities or execute patients,” Gossman said. “No government should want to be paying for such atrocities.”