What is a Likert Scale?

A Likert* scale is a multiple-indicator or multiple-item measure of a set of attitudes relating to a particular area. The goal of a Likert scale is to measure intensity of feelings about the area in question.

A Likert scale about Likert scales!

In its most common format, the Likert scale consists of a statement (e.g. ‘I love Likert scales’) and then a range of ‘strength of feeling’ options which respondents choose from – in the above example, there are five such options ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Each respondents reply on each item is scored, typically with a high score (5 in the above example) being given for positive feelings and a low score (1 in the above example) for negative feelings.

Once all respondents have completed the questionnaire, the scores from all responses are aggregated to give an overall score, or ‘strength of feeling’ about the issue being measured.

Some examples of sociological research using Likert scales:

The World Values Survey is my favourite example – they use a simple four point scale to measure happiness. The poll below gives you the exact wording used in the survey…

The results on the web site (and below) show you the percentages who answer in each category, but I believe that the researchers also give scores to each response (4 to 1) and then do the same for similar questions, combine the scores and eventually come up with a happiness rating for a country out of 10. I think the USA scores around 7.2 or something like that, it might be more! Look it up if you’re interested….

America’s happiness results

Important points to remember about Likert scales

  • The items must be statements, not questions.
  • The items must all relate to the same object being measured (e.g. happiness, strength of religious belief)
  • The items that make up the scale should be interrelated so as to ensure internal reliability is strong.

*The Likert Scale is named after Rensis Likert, who developed the method.

Sources

Adapted from Bryman’s Social Research Methods

 

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Trump’s Tax Bill: Another Neoliberal Policy.

In mid December 2017, The U.S. Senate voted through a tax-bill which will deliver a dramatic reduction in America’s corporate tax rate – from 35% to 20% – along with a reduction in inheritance tax which will allow the America’s wealthiest individuals to pass more tax-free money to their children (or other heirs). This Guardian article provides further details.

Trump Corporations.jpg

For A-level sociology students studying global development, this represents yet another example of a neoliberal policy – cutting taxes is a key aspect of the economic doctrine of neoliberalism.

The supposed rational behind the bill is to stimulate economic growth, but it is also likely to widen inequality and the bill is also predicted to add $1 trillion to the national debt

It’s also interesting to note that Donald Trump ran for president as an outsider who would stand up for the working people, but now it seems that it’s the wealthy, share-holding corporate class that’s going to benefit most from this policy.

 

Forging the American Empire

Is it possible to perceive the making of modern America as a sort of colonial project? One in which the new American capitalist class colonizes the so called American wilderness for the benefit of Capitalism? This is the argument Andrew Brooks makes in his recent book – The End of Development:

On 4 July 1776 the newly independent United States of America consisted of 13 colonies that were formally ceded by Great Britain in 1783. The United States then expanded Westwards, and by the time of the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico in 1853, the modern boarders of the contiguous United States were established.

American expansion.jpg

Formal territorial expansions were legally and politically essential. Annexation first provided new space for capitalism, then new Americans came, conquered and combined land, labour and capital to generate wealth. Fundamentally though it was the direct control and space and the westward advance of Europeans and their conflicts with other Americans that were the real means of making the nation.

The whole history of the United States is one of occupation and land seizure: rather than territorial colonialism abroad,  there was unprecedented territorialism at home. Ironically, the American war of Independence (1775 – 1783), far from being a pure anti-colonial struggle, was rather a moment that enabled expanded imperialism led by the European Americans. Once the revolution had freed the settlers, they conquered the res of the North American continent and reorganized the space for capitalism. This meant removing the Native population to make room for an expanding immigrant population, as was advocated by Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franlklin Colonialism Indians.jpg

The popularization of the notion of ‘wilderness’ was a key ideological tool which promoted this expansion Westwards – the great interior of the new United States was portrayed as wild country which was the antithesis of civilization, full of wild savages, both of which needed to be overcome in order for progress to be made.

(Of course in reality, neither were true, many Native American Tribes had rich cultures which managed the land they had occupied for centuries in a sustainable manner).

In the 19th century, the American capitalist was a colonist at home, enjoying what the European capitalist had to travel to Africa or Asia to achieve: profits were accumulated through imported slaves, and later indentured Chinese labour on the Pacific Coast.

Profit was also accumulated via exploitation of Native Americans through trade. Indigenous peoples exchanged pelts for fish hooks, guns and knives, which benefited whites and forged a relationship of dependency.

Rifles changed the balance of power between tribes, causing warfare between native peoples, as well as intensifying hunting practices. Established cultures and ways of life that had existed for centuries were wiped out in a few short decades. For instance, muskets used by Metis hunters nearly wiped out buffalo in the Red River valley of North Dakota.

Metis-indians buffalo-bones.jpg
Metis indians shipping buffalo bones in North Dakota

Fur trading was one of the first major economic activities, but American capitalism soon diversified and grew as it learnt the lessons of the industrial revolution in Britain, and it was a rapid industrialization as the USA was both unencumbered by old social relations such as Feudalism, and all the necessary resources to fuel industry were on home soil.

Ultimately, Brooks argues that any time Washington, Hamilton, Adams or Jefferson referred to the ‘Federal Union’ in their presidential address, they were really referring to the process of forging an American Empire – except they didn’t need ships to go and do it in far away places, they had plenty of ’empty’ territory right next door.

What are the Most Useful Indicators of Development?

There are hundreds of economic, political and social indicators of development, ranging from ‘Hard’ economic indicators such as Gross National Income (and all its variations), to various poverty and economic inequality indicators, to the Sustainable Development Goals, which focus much more on social indicators of development such as education and health, all the way down to much more subjective development indicators such as happiness.

In this blog post I consider what the most useful indicators of development are for students of A level sociology, studying the excellent module in global development.

I’ve thus selected the indicators below to try and represent:

  • the most commonly used indicators collected by some of the major development institutions, both multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, as well as NGOS.
  • The indicators you need to know for the ‘indicators of development topic – most obviously GNP, the HDI and the MDGs.
  • Other indicators which are useful to know for different sub-topics within the global development course (health, education, gender, conflict, the environment etc…)

Taken together these indicators should provide enough breadth of measurements to gain a very good (for A level standards) insight into the level of development of a country, without resulting in information overload and mental meltdown…

Most of the above indicators below have been developed and are monitored by either the World Bank or the United Nations, but I’ve also included others, such as the Global Peace Index, which are collated by other agencies, so as to broaden out the data sou

The indicators I consider in more detail below are as follows.

  1. Total nominal Gross Domestic Product
  2. Gross National Income per capita (PPP)
  3. The percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day
  4. The percentage of people living below the poverty line within a country.
  5. The unemployment rate.
  6. The Human Development Index score
  7. Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (overlaps with many other aspects)
  8. School enrollment ratios
  9. PISA educational achievement rankings
  10. Percentage of population in tertiary education.
  11. The infant mortality rate.
  12. Healthy life expectancy
  13. The gender inequality index
  14. The global peace index
  15. Total military expenditure
  16. Carbon Dioxide emissions
  17. The corruption index
  18. The Happiness Index.

NB – As with many other posts on this site, this is a work in progress, to be gradually updated as and when I get a chance!

Nominal Gross National Income

Nominal Gross National Income is the total economic value of domestic and foreign output by residents of a country.

It roughly works out like this: Gross National Income = (gross domestic product) + (factor incomes earned by foreign residents) – (income earned in the domestic economy by nonresidents).

Nominal Gross National Income rankings (2015)

  • 1st – USA = $17 trillion
  • 2nd –  China – $$10 trillion
  • 6th – UK = $2.8 trillion
  • 7th – India = $2.0 trillion

Nominal GNI is useful for giving you an idea of the ‘economic clout’ of a country compared to other countries. The real global power players (in terms of military expenditure) are all towards the top of this.

These figures, however, tell you very little about the quality of life in a country…. for that you need to divide the figure per head of population and factor in the cost of living in the country….

Gross National Income Per Capita (PPP)

Gross National Income Per Capita – is GNI divided by the population of a country, so it’s GNI per person.

(PPP) stands for Purchasing Power Parity – which alters the raw GNI per capita data to control for the different costs of living in a country, thus modifying the GNI figure in U.S. dollars to reflect what those dollars would actually buy given the different costs of living in different countries.

Gross National Income Per Capita (PPP) rankings (2013)

  • 1st – Qatar – $123 000
  • 11th – United States – $53 000
  • 23rd – Finland – $38 000
  • 27th – United Kingdom – $35 000
  • 126th – Nigeria – $5360
  • 127th – India – $5350
  • 185th – Democratic Republic of Congo – $680

More up to date data sources for various GNI stats:

GNI per capita (PPP) gives you a general idea of what the general economic standard of living is like for the average person in a country, however, there are serious limitations with this indicator – the main one being that it does not tell you how much of that income actually stays in a country, or how income is distributed. Quality of life will thus be a lot better for some people, and a lot worse for others than these gross statistics indicate.

The Percentage of People Living on Less than $1.25 a day

There are still around 800 million people around the world living on less than $1.25 a day (PPP), the figures for some of these countries are below:

  • The Democratic Republic of Congo (88%)
  • Bangladesh (47%)
  • India (26%)
  • China (6%)

Looking at absolute poverty statistics like this gives us a much fuller understanding of the lack of development in certain countries – in DRC, you can clearly see that poverty is endemic (absolute poverty is a significant problem in many Sub-Saharan African countries), and we can also see that absolute poverty is still a significant problem in India (mainly rural India) and while the 6% is quite low in China, this 6% represents 10s of millions of people, given the large overall population size.

Proportion of population living below the poverty line within a country

The UN sustainable development goals states that one of its aims (under goal 1) is to ‘reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions’. (Source – The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals)

The United Nations collects this data for countries will lower human development, but not for countries with high human development, and so here we are reliant on data from national governments or other agencies  – and the problem here is that different countries measure their ‘poverty line’ in different ways, so this means making cross national comparisons are difficult. Some sources are below:

Selected Stats on the Proportion of People Living Below the Country’s own poverty line:

  • Most low income countries with high absolute poverty rates register percentages of between 30-60% living below their own poverty lines.
  • The USA has 15% of its population living below its poverty line (a household income of around $24000 per annum)
  • The UK also has around 15% of its population living below its poverty line, although its line is higher than the US – around $30000.

So how useful is this ‘relative measure of poverty’ as an indicator of a country’s level of development?

  • They give us far more insight than the GNI per capita PPP figures, because they tell us about income distribution. Can you really call a rich country developed if 15% of its population aren’t earning enough of an income to fully participate in that society?
  • We also need them as an addition to the absolute figures of poverty – absolute poverty doesn’t exist in the wealthiest countries, but clearly relative poverty does.
  • HOWEVER, the differences in how relative poverty figures are calculated does make it difficult to make comparisons.
  • Also, some figures in the UN’s data just don’t seem believable – some ex-communist countries (such as Kazakhstan) report that only 5% of the population live below the country’s poverty line – either than line is extremely low or there’s maybe a little bit of mis-reporting going on?

The Human Development Index

The Human Development Index is compiled annually by the United Nations and gives countries a score based on GNI per capita, number of years of actual and expected schooling and life expectancy, or in the words of the UN itself – the HDI is ‘A composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development—a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living.’

Selected Countries by Human Development Index rankings (2015)

  • 1st – Norway
  • 8th – United States
  • 14th – United Kingdom
  • 24th – Finland
  • 32nd – Qatar
  • 39th – Saudi Arabia
  • 55th – The United States
  • 56th – Saudi Arabia
  • 90th – China
  • India – 130th
  • 137th- Bhutan
  • 176th – DRC

For the strengths and limitations of the HID, please see my aptly titled post: ‘the strengths and limitations of the Human Development Index’.

Percentage of children enrolled in secondary school

The Gender Inequality Index

The United Nations defines the Gender Inequality Index as ‘A composite measure reflecting inequality in achievement between women and men in three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment and the labour market’.

More specifically, it gives countries a score between 0-1 (similar to the HDI) based on:

  • The Maternal mortality ratio: Number of deaths due to pregnancy-related causes per 100,000 live births.
  • The Adolescent birth rate: Number of births to women ages 15–19 per 1,000 women ages 15–19.
  • Proportion of seats held by women in the national parliament expressed as percentage of total seats.
  • The proportion of the female population compared to the male population with at least some secondary education
  • The comparative Labour force participation rate for men and women.

2015 Gender inequality index rankings

Selected countries according to their rankings for the Gender Inequality Index

  • 1st – Slovenia
  • 11th – Finland
  • 39th – The United Kingdom
  • 55th – The United States
  • 56th – Saudi Arabia
  • 97the – Bhutan
  • 127 – Ghana
  • 130th – India

The obvious strength of this is that we get to compare the life chances of women in a country to those of men. What’s (maybe) surprising is that while there does appear to be a general correlation between high GNI per capita (PPP), high human development and low gender inequality, the correlation is not perfect: as is evidenced by the USA being just one place above Saudi Arabia and Ghana being just a few places above India, despite these two pairs of countries having quite divergent levels of ‘human development’.

Notes 

Composite Versus ‘Single Variable’ Indicators

Some of the indicators above are ‘composite’ indicators – which are formed when individual indicators are combined into a single index, giving countries a simplified score, such as the Human Development Index, the Gender Empowerment Index and the Global Peace Index; others are ‘single variable’ indicators – such as the Child Mortality Rate, which just measure one thing.

My reasons for considering both composite and single indicators of development are that while composite indicators crunch more data into a single figure, and thus allow you to make more ‘in-depth’ snap-shot comparisons, single numbers simply don’t give you a sense of the real difference between countries, so these are necessary to highlight the extent of the difference between countries in terms of economic, social and political development, or lack of it.

(1) of course, studying development comparatively may or may not, in itself be useful!

 

Right Wing American Media Bias

Identifying media bias through content analysis is a key skill in sociology. The American media is often accused of having a right-wing bias which means they will present a pro-capitalist, pro-business world view as normal and desirable and promote a neoliberal policy agenda. (1)

Below I analyse one newspaper article (about why 66 million Americans have no savings at all) to illustrate how agenda setting, or what and what isn’t included in the article, results in a subtle right-wing, neoliberal bias. 

The article is as follows: Can you guess how many Americans have absolutely no savings at all – BY KRISTEN DOERER AND PAUL SOLMAN  June 21, 2016

OK – It looks like it might be a lefty topic, because it’s about the precarious financial life of the poorest sections of American society, but there’s no class-based analysis focusing on how it’s mainly low-paid and temporary jobs in the context of 30 years neoliberal economics resulting in productivity gains, but increasingly unequal national income distribution meaning the very rich get richer, while most of the rest of us, especially the poor, get relatively poorer.

Having alerted us to these ‘shocking statistics’ (oh those poor, poor Americans), we are then told that this low-savings rate is spread among all households –

‘the problem is hardly confined to the poor. Yes, more than half of all households with an annual income under $30,000 have no emergency savings. But fully one in six households with an annual income between $50,000 and $75,000 had no emergency savings either’.

The article then goes on to talk about how Gen Y is better at saving than Gen X – the tone of which seems to blame 40 to 60 somethings for having too high consumption levels and not saving enough… (‘if your damn kids can save, then why not you too’?) –  here ignoring the following two important contextual facts:

  • (A) Gen Xrs were encouraged to consume in the context of a growing economy, then the neoliberal crash came in 2007, and here we are: hyper-precarity;
  • (B) OK Yes – Gen Yrs may appear to be better at saving, rather than avoiding debt, but why are they saving? I bet once you take out all of those saving to go travelling (and hence consuming) or saving for a mortgage (you now need a bigger deposit than your parents), you’d have similar rates of debt being racked up across the generations.

The article ends with the classic neoliberal trick of individualising the whole problem:

“The biggest barrier to saving is not being in the habit of saving,” says McBride. “You have to set some money aside with every paycheck.” Making it automatic can help, he advises. But no matter how you do it, start now.”

Ignoring the fact that for the typical person with no savings (mots of them are in low-paid jobs) there simply isn’t enough money left at the end of the week to put something extra by!

In summary: why don’t people save according to the narrow agenda of this right-wing, neoliberal article?

  • 40-60 somethings got into the habit of consuming too much.
  • It’s a problem which effects all levels of income
  • 20-30 somethings are much better at saving than their parents
  • Irresponsible parents need to learn from their kids and just save more….

What’s not considered/ emphasised 

  • There are 10-15% of American households which are in no position to save for emergencies
  • This is because 30 years of neoliberal policies have created precarious and low-paid jobs, which has meant productivity gains, the gains from which have gone disproportionately to the top 1%.
  • Generation Yrs are shit-scared of their futures and so are more likely to save compared to their parents.
  • We need state-intervention to redistribute wealth away from the richest 1% and back to the lowest paid workers who actually created this wealth through their labour power.

Notes

(1) I didn’t intend to write this today, it just sort of happened, I was actually looking up stats on inequality in America, and I got quite annoyed when I read (and thought) about the content of this article.

Related posts 

Do the media influence our voting behaviour? – Deals withe bias in newspaper reporting of the 2017 U.K. Election

Is America and underdeveloped country?

 

 

Does Globalisation mean the Decline of the Nation State?

In the early stages of Globalisation (1600 -1950s especially) Nation States were very powerful – Colonialism for example was led by European governments and monarchies and the most serious conflicts tended to be between nation states – culminating in World War 2. However, since then, many globalisation theorists argue that increasing global flows in trade and communications have reduced the relative power of Nation States…..

Evidence for the power of Nation States declining

  • National Governments increasingly face problems that are too big for them to deal with on their own – examples of such global problems include – dealing with these problems increases the need to co-operate and reduces the power of individual nation states environmental problems, international terrorism, drug and people trafficking and the threat of global pandemics.
Are nation states too small to deal with the problem of global warming?
  • The United Nations and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – limits the power of Nations to restrict the freedoms of individuals. Linked to this we have an international court where some dictators have been tried for crimes such as genocide.
  • Global Social Movements such as the green movement and the occupy movement are increasingly interconnected – which are critical of nation states – also part of ‘cultural globalisation’.
  • Some Transnational Corporations are bigger than Nation States – and so wield power over them – BP for example makes £25 billion profit every year and employs thousands of British workers – it is so crucial to the UK economy that the government has little choice but to keep it sweet, and the same is the case with many of our largest banks.
  • The power of United Nations to make any real change in the world is limited. The recent war in Iraq shows that powerful nations will go to war even when the United Nations does not back these wars.

Evidence for Nation States still retaining power

  • The World’s leading Nation States still maintain huge military capacity – the US spends more than $680 billion in 2010 on its military and Britain maintains a standing peace-time army of around 100 000 troops.
Only the richest nation states can afford these
  • Pessimists argue that the World Trade Organisation simply represent the interests of the most powerful nations – namely America.
  • ‘National Identity’ is still important to billions of people – there is a trend to more nation states – as present nations divide.
  • Brexit and the election of Donald Trump also suggest an increase in the number of people wanting to restrict the free-migration of people, no other institution can realistically do this, other than the nation state.

The US bombing of Afghanistan – A $16 million distraction from the harms of neoliberal policies at home?

America’s two latest attacks on Syria and Afghanisatan have been headline news in the last fortnight – in case you missed either of them…

In Syria – the US launched 59 Tomahawk missiles to damage and air base in response to the claimed use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces against civilians.

In Afghanistan they deployed the biggest ever non-nuclear bomb, at a cost of $16 million, to take out an ISIS stronghold.

The US claims the Syrian attack was because Assad crossed a line in using chemical weapons, and much of the news has focused on the declining relations with Russia (who support Assad), and they claimed the scale of second attack was to get into the underground bunkers used by ISIS, and here the news has focused on the message this sends to North Korea.

But why is the Trump administration playing ‘global policeman’ when just 6 months ago they campaigned on a ticket of focusing on domestic policy and making life better for ordinary America?

Noam Chomsky offers an interesting perspective and answer…

Noam Chomsky recently claimed that the Trump administration would need some kind of scapegoat or distraction to disguise the fact that their neoliberal policies are clearly in favour of big business and against the interests of the ordinary working class American, whose side Trump claimed to be on during the election campaign.

One good example of a recent neo-liberal policy which will make life worse for especially poorer working class Americans is the abolition of Obama’s anti wage-theft legislation this required a company to publish details of any violations of minimum wage or health and safety law that they’d made. The regulation forced businesses to disclose each time they broke a law in the past three years, including violations relating to civil rights, health and safety, and minimum wage and overtime violations.

There was also Trump’s recent attempt to repeal ‘Obamacare’ – which would have left 20 million more (poor) Americans without health insurance, but that was defeated, however, the defeat is an embarrassment which fuels the need for a distraction according to Chomsky.

So maybe there is some truth in this? Maybe now the real Trump is showing his colours and enacting policies which support big business and make life worse for the working man, what’s needed is a distraction – and what better than to bomb a few people, which will obviously just generate more problems abroad and more terrorist attacks on US citizens, possibly all ending up in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you like this sort of Chomskian analysis, you might also want to check out Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’, what’s going on here seems to be an evolution of what she argues too.

The United States Military: Some Recent Examples of Their War Crimes

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.

Reaper Drone.JPG
The Reaper Drone

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.

Deaths US Drone Strikes.jpg

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. 

Kunduz Medical Centre.jpg
The Kunduz Medical Centre after its destruction by the U.S. Military in 2015

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.

Legality

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.