The King Hussein Humanitarian Leadership Prize Speech

Delivered by Dr. Rowan Gillies, President of the MSF International Council, in Amman.

Your Majesty King Abdullah, your Majesty Queen Raina, your Majesty Queen Noor, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is with sincere gratitude that MSF accepts the King Hussein Humanitarian Leadership Prize. It is a great honour for our organisation, however more importantly, it is a strong encouragement for our thousands of volunteers and national staff that work around the world.

In these times of renewed fighting in Ivory Coast, with great needs in the Darfur region of Sudan, and in many less know contexts such as Northen Uganda or Chechnya, this recognition from civil society makes us realise our work is supported and not forgotten.

But I am concerned: As we speak, a massive military operation is underway in Fallujah. As a medical humanitarian organisation we are deeply concerned about the fate of ordinary people there. As a doctor, I am profoundly disturbed by reports of the occupation of hospitals and the destruction of other health facilities.

Hospitals must be neutral and safe havens for civilians to escape the hours of war and find medical treatment.

And there is no doubt that civilians are suffering today in Fallujah. I call on all warring parties to assume their obligation and do all in their power to prevent the death of civilians, allow them to be assisted, and guarantee the safe passage of medical staff and supplies.

It is unfortunately not new for civilians to be caught up and outright attacked in conflict, but today we also see a dangerous trend of targeting those who seek to help the civilians in their moment of greatest need. The murder of our five colleagues in Afghanistan was a shocking testament to this development.

As a result of this brutal and callous attack, as well as ongoing threats, we have had to make the painful decision to withdraw our teams from Afghanistan after 24 years. More recently, the extreme risks run by foreign and Iraqi aid workers, have caused us with deep sadness and regret to leave this country.

These assaults again humanitarian organisations are not isolated, they come against the background of increasing attempt by Western governments to co-opte the humanitarian act by presenting combat tactics and political strategies as humanitarian operations.

We are told "be with us or against us", we are warned about a clash of cultures, denying the universal nature of both humanitarian action and medical ethics.

As aid workers we are, of course, not blind to the context in which we work. However, being humanitarian is:

  • NOT about winning the hearts and minds of the people
  • Is is NOT about imposing a political or cultural system, good or bad
  • And it is NOT about winning wars or, even, building peace.

    It IS a visceral and practical response of one human being to the suffering of another. It is an apolitical act and by definition a civilian act.

    Threats to this ideal leave us and all humanitarian organisations with a stark choice. If we do not strongly reject this manipulation as well as these attacks, there is no alternative but to join one side or the other. And thus accept to be both used and treated as an enemy.

    For MSF it is clear that we must not accept these threats to our independence. For it is our independence that allows us to do impartial assessments and to which the most vulnerable in places such as Sudan or Ivory Coast, and all the places that do not make it to the news headlines.

    Finally, I would like to thank the King Hussein Foundation for their support and acknowledgement of our work. Again, thank you.