War Crimes

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Facts, Alternative Facts, and International Law

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…

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