This material is relevant to the topic of ‘State Crime’ and ‘War and Conflict’ as an aspect of development. The point of it is to illustrate that the United States is pretty much the biggest military aggressor in recent world history, and thus a good candidate for the country which commits the worst state-crimes.
The United States military is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in The Middle East, South West Asia, and North Africa, as Part of the United States Government’s Ongoing War on Terror. Civilians are protected under International Humanitarian Law, which means that every single civilian death is potentially an example of a State Crime committed by the USA.
Civilian Deaths and the United States’ ‘War on Terror’
The United States uses cutting edge military hardware to kill what it believes to be terrorists. Most of the killing the U.S. army and air force do these days is remote, typically involving missiles released from drones many miles away from their targets, with the drones themselves being piloted by people even further away.
Increasingly, the weapons of choice, used throughout the Middle East, are Predator and Reaper drones, but the US Air force also still operates F16s, Apache attack helicopters and AC-130 gunships, in Afghanistan for example.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism tracks drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia and estimates the total number of civilians killed by drone strikes and other covert operations in the above four countries to be approximately 700-1400. The latest data is available here.
Whether you go with the lower or higher estimate of deaths, the percentage of civilians killed in the War on Terror is somewhere in the region of 20-25% of the total (what the US would call ‘collateral damage’).
The U.S. claims that a combination of painstakingly gathered intelligence and precision-targeted missiles have enabled it to make sure that the people it’s targeting are actually enemy combatants and to minimise the number of civilian casualties, but nonetheless thousands of civilians have also been taken out by the United States in this process over the last decade and a half.
The United Nations has questioned the legality of drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, with which the United States isn’t actually at war, and has further criticised the U.S. government for not releasing its own data on the numbers of casualties due its drone war – hence the need to rely on investigative journalism.
So it seems that at least 20-25% of these drone attacks are state-crimes in the sense that this is the proportion which take out innocent civilians; then there’s the possibility that the entire drone-campaign itself is illegal, given that the United States isn’t technically at war with most of the countries it’s operating its drones in.
The Destruction of the Kunduz Trauma Centre
On 3 October 2015, a United States Air Force AC-130U gunship attacked the Kunduz Trauma Centre operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in the city of Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan. At least 42 people were killed and over 30 were injured. This appears to be a pretty unambiguous example of a war crime committed by the U.S. military.
The video below (5.20 – 7.00 minutes) will give you an idea of the capability of an AC-130 Gunship, basically a very large plane which houses various different types of guns and missile and bomb launchers along with LOTS AND LOTS of ammunition. (NB these gunships cost somewhere between $130-190 million, depending on the model, at 2001 prices).
Médecins Sans Frontières condemned the incident, saying that the airstrike was a breach of international humanitarian law and a war crime. Cockpit recordings showed that the AC-130 crew questioned the strike’s legality.
On 7 October 2015, President Barack Obama issued a rare apology and announced the United States would be making condolence payments to the families of those killed in the airstrike.
Background to the Attack
On 28 September 2015, Taliban militants seized the city of Kunduz, driving government forces out of the city. After the reinforcements arrived, the Afghan army, backed by U.S. airstrikes, began an offensive operation to regain control of the city; after several days of fighting, Afghan forces claimed to have retaken the city. However, fighting continued, and on 3 October, a US-led airstrike struck and badly damaged Kunduz Trauma Centre operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), killing doctors, staff members and patients.
Médecins Sans Frontières reported that on the night of 3 October, the organization’s Kunduz hospital was struck by “a series of aerial bombing raids” and that the building was “partially destroyed”. It further said the hospital had been “repeatedly & precisely hit” and that the attack had continued for 30 minutes after MSF staff contacted U.S. and Afghan officials during the strike.
MSF had informed all warring parties of the location of its hospital complex. MSF personnel had contacted U.S. military officials as recently as 29 September to reconfirm the precise location of the hospital. Two days prior to the attack Carter Malkasian, adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emailed MSF asking if the facility had Taliban militants “holed up” inside.
Attacks on medical facilities are forbidden under international humanitarian law unless the facilities “are being used, outside their humanitarian function, to commit acts harmful to the enemy”. Even if enemy combatants are inappropriately using the facility for shelter, the rule of proportionality usually forbids such attacks because of the high potential for civilian casualties. Human Rights Watch said the laws of war require the attacking force to issue a warning, and wait a reasonable time for a response, before attacking a medical unit being misused by combatants
At the time of the airstrikes, MSF was treating women and children and wounded combatants from both sides of the conflict. MSF estimates that of the 105 patients at the time of the attack, between 3 and 4 of the patients were wounded government combatants, while approximately 20 patients were wounded Taliban. MSF general director Christopher Stokes said, “Some public reports are circulating that the attack on our hospital could be justified because we were treating Taliban. Wounded combatants are patients under international law, and must be free from attack and treated without discrimination. Medical staff should never be punished or attacked for providing treatment to wounded combatants.”
It’s difficult to put a positive spin on this, but I guess you could say it’s better than when the United States unnecessarily nuked Hiroshima in 1945 where the civilian to combatant ratio must have been significantly higher – so while the US clearly isn’t respecting International Humanitarian Law by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, at least they’re doing better than in the past.
Postscript: International Humanitarian Law
What enables us to determine that the above acts by the United States military and government are in fact state-crimes is the existence of International Humanitarian Law.
According to Amnesty International ‘International law prohibits arbitrary killing and limits the lawful use of intentional lethal force to exceptional situations. In armed conflict, only combatants and people directly participating in hostilities may be directly targeted. Outside armed conflict, intentional lethal force is lawful only when strictly unavoidable to protect against an imminent threat to life. In some circumstances arbitrary killing can amount to a war crime or extrajudicial executions, which are crimes under international law’
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross
International humanitarian law is a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. A major part of international humanitarian law is contained in the four Geneva Conventions (1864 -1949).
The basic principles of International Humanitarian Law include:
- Those who are not taking part in hostilities (e.g. civilians) shall be protected in all circumstances. Parties to a conflict shall at all times distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. Attacks shall be directed against legitimate military targets.
- The wounded and the sick shall be cared for and protected by the party to the conflict which has them in its power. The emblem of the “Red Cross,” or of the “Red Crescent,” shall be required to be respected as the sign of protection.
- Captured persons must be protected against acts of violence and reprisals. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
- Parties to a conflict do not have an unlimited choice of methods and means of warfare. Humanitarian law has banned the use of many weapons, including exploding bullets, chemical and biological weapons, blinding laser weapons and anti-personnel mines.
Once conflict has ended, anyone breaching any of the rules laid down by International Humanitarian Law can be tried through an international tribunal. However, it’s unlikely that any U.S. personnel will ever see justice for their part in killing innocent civilians.
Finally, just a quick reminder of the point of this post – it’s not just Islamic Fundamentalists killing in the name of ideology, America does it too, and by the objective (ish) standards of International Humanitarian Law, many of these killings are state crimes.