On 3 October 2015, a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, was destroyed in a strike carried out by the United States Air Force. 22 civilians were killed - 12 MSF staff members and ten patients; 37 individuals were injured, including 19 MSF staff.  Condemnation of the operation was swift, including from MSF which "condemn[ed] in the strongest possible terms the horrific aerial bombing ... [which] constitutes a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law." President Obama apologized to MSF, and the United States government has announced it will issue "condolence payments."   

Was this a war crime? Any analysis of the question centers on the IHL principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack. It also raises the fundamental protections afforded civilians and civilian objects under IHL, as well as those special protections for medical personnel and hospitals. Any answer to this question requires a thorough and independent investigation, so as to determine the facts on the ground. This raises a host of additional questions, including the obligation of states to investigate and prosecute (if appropriate) in cases like this, as well as the potential role of the International Humanitarian Law Fact-Finding Committee. The Commission, set up under the Geneva Conventions, can investigate violations of IHL - but it has not been used before.  

This learning session served as a case study to apply the areas covered in previous sessions in the series. It reviewed the various legal questions related to the strike, including the relevant rules of targeting, the protections afforded medical staff and hospitals, and what investigation and accountability looks like.

Guest expert

Robin Geiß Robin Geiß Professor of International Law and Security, School of Law, University of Glasgow. Prior to his professorship at the University of Glasgow, Robin Geiss was Professor of International and European Law at the University of Potsdam. Prior to that, he had worked as Legal Adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva and as ICRC delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council. At Glasgow, he convenes the LL.M. in International Law and Security. Professor Geiss studied law in Bielefeld, Edinburgh, Kiel (PhD, 2005) and at the New YorkUniversity (LL.M., 2004), and is a qualified German lawyer (admitted in 2007). His areas of research include most major subjects of public international law, in particular United Nations law, statehood, human rights, international humanitarian and international criminal law. A former scholar of the German National Merit Foundation, Robin Geiss is currently managing editor of the Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law and Rapporteur of the International Law Association’s (ILA) Study Group on the challenges to international humanitarian law in contemporary armed conflicts. He is also member of a European research consortium that investigates the unintended consequences of international counter-narcotic measures and was a member of the international group of experts that, under the auspices of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, drafted the “Tallinn-Manual” on international law applicable to cyber-warfare. He is the author of “Failed States” (Duncker & Humblot 2005) and co-author of “Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea” (OUP 2011) and has published in a wide range of scholarly journals. In addition to his academic work, Professor Geiss has advised states inter alia in proceedings before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and especially on matters pertaining to cyber-security. His advisory work has also included mandates from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Health Organization, the Military Academy of the German Armed Forces, the Centre for Economic and Social Rights and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. In 2010, he was invited to address the United Nations Human Rights Council on the protection of journalists in armed conflicts.

Event host

Elizabeth Holland Elizabeth Holland Consulting Expert on International Humanitarian Law, International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP)


Session recording

Session recording (downloadable audio podcast)

Recommended reading

For those wishing to prepare for the session, we recommend the following resources:

Learning objectives

  • Knowledge of basic rules governing conduct of hostilities
  • Awareness of specific rules affording enhanced protection to hospitals under certain conditions
  • Understanding of how an analysis of the legality of a strike is undertaken
  • Awareness of the International Fact Finding Commission mechanism and the conditions under which it might be activated
  • Familiarity with the some of the challenges that emerge when assessing whether there has been a violation of IHL


PHAP members have the possibility to undergo a two-part assessment after the session as part of the PHAP Continuous Learning Credits framework.

Part 1: Comprehension check

Part 2: Written reflection

To encourage peer learning among members, selected essay responses will also be published on the website, if approved by the writer. As a member, you can comment on the responses and read other members' comments.

Read the written reflections

PHAP Credentialing Program

PHAP Credentialing Program

International Legal Frameworks for Humanitarian Action

This event will help you prepare for the PHAP Credentialing Program certification in International Legal Frameworks for Humanitarian Action.

In particular, the event will address segments 3.5 and 5.3 of the certification assessment outline. The event will also address some aspects of segments 3.4, 5.1, and 5.2.

Read more about the PHAP Credentialing Program

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