The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution this week condemning attacks on health facilities in war zones, but a NATO inquiry into a deadly raid on a clinic in Afghanistan shows how toothless the resolution may be.
The NATO mission in Afghanistan, known as Resolute Support, launched an inquiry after claims emerged that foreign soldiers were present when Afghan security forces raided a clinic in Wardak Province in the pre-dawn hours of 18 February. Afghan security forces abused staff at the clinic, which is run by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, and allegedly executed two patients and a 15-year-old boy who was visiting.
Shortly afterwards, the UN Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, reported the raid and the presence of foreign soldiers. The SCA then said its staff had seen international troops who were speaking a language that sounded like English.
In the wake of those revelations, both the Afghan government and Resolute Support said they would look into the incident. Now, Resolute Support has told IRIN that its inquiry is complete and that investigators “found no evidence to support the allegation”.
It’s unclear which allegation they were referring to: that the raid took place, that three people were executed, or that foreign troops were involved, or a combination of all three.
Interestingly, Resolute Support said it “did not have access to those who made the allegations”. This means that, while investigators found no evidence of wrongdoing, they did not communicate with witnesses or others who may have provided such evidence.
According to SCA, however, that is not true.
“What a strange answer,” Bjorn Lindh, an SCA spokesman, told IRIN. “We have been in contact with NATO and agreed upon a procedure to take testimony from our staff.”
It was too dangerous for clinic staff to meet with Resolute Support and too difficult for military officers to travel to the area where the clinic is, Lindh said. So both parties agreed that clinic staff would instead go to the provincial capital, Maidan Shar, where SCA would interview them and then provide the transcripts to Resolute Support, which they did.
In addition, Lindh told IRIN that his organisation had found out that the Afghan security forces involved in the raid were part of a police unit known as CF333, which works with British Special Forces. That suggests that if foreign soldiers were indeed present, they were most likely British.
Judging by its statement to IRIN, Resolute Support appears to have discarded the information provided by SCA.
The situation highlights problems that arise when militaries are tasked with investigating themselves. Patti Gossman, an Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, has told IRIN that it is “rare” that incidents involving international troops are properly investigated, and that she is unaware of any Afghan security officer ever being held accountable for committing serious abuses.
There is no shortage of abuses in the war in Afghanistan, and healthcare facilities that are protected under international law have increasingly come under attack, according to data released recently by UNAMA. In 2015, there were 125 conflict-related incidents affecting healthcare, compared to 59 the previous year.
At least 20 healthcare workers were killed last year in Afghanistan, said UNAMA, including those who died in an aerial attack carried out by the United States on a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières in Kunduz in October. The number of attacks on health facilities has risen drastically in other conflict zones too, notably in Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan.
It was the sharp increase of attacks that prompted the UN Security Council to unanimously endorse a resolution urging warring parties to respect the protected status of health facilities and healthcare workers in conflict. The resolution pushes states to investigate attacks on healthcare and prosecute the perpetrators.
It is unclear, however, if the resolution will make any difference on the ground. Warring parties are unlikely to feel bound by it as it essentially underscores rules that already exist and are being violated flagrantly and mostly with impunity.
Will the pattern of impunity continue in the case of the February raid on the SCA clinic in Afghanistan? Will the Security Council resolution make a difference in this case? The jury is still out.
Afghanistan’s government has not announced the results of its investigation and the Ministry of Interior did not respond to requests for comment.
When asked what role British soldiers may have played in the operation, the British embassy in Kabul passed the questions on to the Ministry of Defence. A spokesman said it's ministry policy not to comment on Special Forces operations.
Resolute Support did not respond to requests for clarification after initially telling IRIN that it had no access to people with information about the raid.
Those with information would include staff from UNAMA, but UNAMA refused to say if Resolute Support had contacted its staff and whether it had contributed to the inquiry.
The only acknowledgment so far from the Afghan government that the raid took place is in a letter from the Public Health Ministry to SCA, which was provided to IRIN. Minister Ferozuddin Feroz wrote that he had raised the issue with security authorities, “so they issue the relevant units with the required guidance toward preventing the repetition of such an action”.
That’s a welcome initiative, but like the Security Council resolution, it could be an empty one unless authorities actually act on it.
(PHOTO: An MSF employee stands in the wreckage of a clinic in Kunduz after it was attacked by a US aircraft in October 2015)