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Facts, Alternative Facts, and International Law

Published on May 29, 2017        Author: 

On October 3, 2015, at 2:08a.m., a U.S. Special Operations AC-130 gunship attacked a Doctors Without Borders [Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF] hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, with heavy fire. Forty-two people were killed, mostly patients and hospital staff members. Dozens of others were injured, and the hospital building was severely damaged and subsequently closed. When the dust finally settled, the question that pre-occupied the press and most pundits was whether this was a war crime.

Attempts to answer this question prompted discussions about the relevant laws and their proper interpretation, which, in turn, fueled disputes about specific facts relevant to these laws. Recent news stories about the Trump administration’s plan to relax some of the battlefield rules further intensified the legal controversies. Unfortunately this focus on questions of law, guilt, and blame divert attention from the more basic questions of what actually happened, why it happened, and what might be done to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The attack on the Kunduz hospital and the controversy that followed it exemplify a broader phenomenon. Legal fact-finding reports set to resolve factual disputes often trigger more controversies, and are poorly equipped to mobilize domestic sanctioning and condemnation of war criminals by their societies. People are motivated to believe what they already know, and to reject facts that are inconsistent with their prior beliefs and political ideology. Legal fact-finding reports are susceptible to social biases just as any other source of information. Therefore, they often fail to create a shared understanding of ‘what happened’ or to combat denialism of crimes. They also lack the emotional appeal, participatory value, and social cues that moral expressions or other types of social truth-telling entail. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: EJIL Analysis, War Crimes