Eamonn McCann: Hospital bombing exposes US hypocrisy over civilian deaths

Condemnation of Russian air strikes in Syria rings hollow

Asked on Monday whether the US had decided to reject referral of the bombing of the hospital at Kunduz to the International Criminal Court (ICC), State Department spokesman Mark Toner replied: "That is a perfectly sound assumption."

The US account of last Saturday’s bombing has changed and changed again. The only constant has been implacable opposition to a credible investigation.

President Bill Clinton signed up to the ICC in 2000, but didn't ask Congress for ratification. Two years later, President George W Bush rescinded the signature. Secretary of state Colin Powell explained that to accept the ICC would be to "undermine US judicial authority." In the meantime, September 11th had happened and the US and its allies had invaded Afghanistan. The Bush administration struck a series of bilateral deals with other countries whereby they promised not to co-operate with the ICC in any attempt to hold a US citizen to account. Countries which refused to provide the undertaking would forfeit eligibility for US military or economic aid.

The American Service-Members’ Protection Act, 2002, authorised the president to use force if necessary to free US personnel detained on behalf of the ICC, irrespective of the circumstances of their detention or the nature of the allegations against them.


War crimes

Bush’s ambassador-at-large for war crimes, Pierre-Richard Prosper, spelt out the administration’s view: “Rather than creating an international mechanism to deal with these issues, it is better to organise an international mandate that authorises states to use their unilateral tools to tackle the problems.”

Those behind the bombing raid on Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004, which resulted in the Nazzal Emergency Hospital operated by an Islamic charity being reduced to rubble, will have known they had effective immunity.In July, the Médecins Sans Frontières facility in Kanduz was closed to new patients for three days after Afghan troops stormed the hospital in pursuit, they said, of "a terrorist". Their commander told Reuters: "I was told he was a member of al-Qaeda being treated at the MSF hospital."

MSF said: “This incident demonstrates a serious lack of respect for the medical mission, which is safeguarded under international humanitarian law.”

Last Saturday’s attack on the hospital hadn’t come out of the blue. There was precedent, too, for the rationale. Fox News quoted “US defence officials” saying: “The incident could have been avoided if the Taliban had not used the hospital as a base.”

MSF responded that even if this were the truth of it, what had happened was a war crime: “These statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients because they claim that members of the Taliban were present.”

Two days before the second Kunduz hospital attack, Russian aircraft bombed targets in Syria. The US claimed irresponsible targeting had resulted in civilians being killed. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power issued an urgent plea: "We call on Russia to immediately cease attacks on Syrian opposition and civilians."

The following day, Lieut Gen Bob Oto, the US Air Force's number two intelligence officer, contrasted US and Russian attitudes to civilian casualties. "We believe that if you inadvertently kill innocent men, woman and children, then there's a backlash from that." He urged the Russians to desist. A week earlier, on September 28th, air strikes by the US's most important regional ally, Saudi Arabia, had killed 131 people attending the wedding of a prominent member of the Shia Houthi organisation in a village near the Red Sea port of Mocha. This wasn't a once-off either. Yemen-based Human Rights Watch researcher Belkis Willie said: "I've documented several strikes since the beginning of the war on market places, because market places are going to be crowded. In one strike, you see 60-65 people killed all at once, all civilians."

Air strikes

The Saudi-led coalition is the only party in the conflict with aircraft. At least 400 Yemeni children have died in air strikes this year. There has been no condemnation from the US or UK governments – the main suppliers of aircraft and bombs to the Saudis.

For two days following the Yemen killings, the Obama administration appeared to have nothing to say. Then Power took to twitter: "Terrible news from Yemen of killing of innocent civilians and aid workers. Urgently need pol solution to crisis." No suggestion of where responsibility might lie.

Musician Ani DiFranco has a poetical way of wording these things . . . “It’s time to pick through the rubble, clean the streets and clear the air/get our government to pull its big dick out of the sand/of someone else’s desert/put it back in its pants/and quit the hypocritical chants/of freedom forever.”