The US Defense Department reportedly meted out only administrative punishments to 11 military personnel involved in the October 3, 2015 airstrikes on a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that killed 42 medical workers and patients. That means letters of reprimand and other noncriminal penalties for those who ordered and carried out the attack. For good reason the victims’ family members will see this as both an injustice and an insult: the US military investigated itself and decided no crimes had been committed.

The remains of MSF's trauma center in Kunduz after the attack on October 3, 2015.  

© 2015 Dan Sermand/MSF

Widespread concerns that any purely internal military investigation would smack of self-preservation went unheeded. The military investigation was carried out under General John Campbell, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan at the time, who blamed a series of errors, “human, technical, and procedural” for the airstrike. Human Rights Watch has analyzed information from the US military, MSF, and other sources and found a strong basis for determining that criminal liability exists. Under the laws of war, hospitals have special protection from attack, and attacks on them can be war crimes.

The US military justice system’s poor record prosecuting alleged war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq shows the need for a criminal inquiry outside the military chain of command. Human Rights Watch has called on the US Department of Defense to create a special high-level and independent Consolidated Disposition Authority and an independent convening authority to control referrals of criminal charges and the convening of courts martial.

In his statement following the Kunduz attack, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter vowed to conduct a “full and transparent” investigation and hold people accountable. Apparently that has not happened. The failure to criminally investigate senior officials liable for the attack is not only an affront to the lives lost at the MSF hospital, but a blow against the rule of law in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.