War and conflict

About MSF: Presentation to Stony Brook University

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is the first time that an institution as prestigious as Stony Brook has implemented a comprehensive awareness and fund raising event for MSF, as our organisation is known in the field. It is probably true that now everyone at Stony Brook knows MSF. This is very important for our organisation and will help us since we are not yet so well known in this country compared to the rest of the world, despite being a major force in international relief efforts, because we only opened Doctors Without Borders USA in 1991. We hope that other SUNY institutions will duplicate Stony Brook's wonderful initiative.

Since some of our MSF volunteers already gave you some overview of our organization's activities as well as their experiences in the field, from Afghanistan to Sudan, I would like to use this opportunity to talk to you about my activities as MSF's Delegate to the United Nations, and about some of the new challenges for humanitarian actors.

Some say that the creation of Médecins Sans Frontières in 1971 brought about a small revolution in the world of humanitarianism. De facto, 28 years later, MSF is a movement that has inspired now more than ten thousand volunteers of some 45 nationalities to join efforts in providing medical care to populations in crises, irrespective of ethnicity, religion and politics. Our volunteers work in more than 80 countries around the world, and in fact last year, 110 of them were Americans. I would also like to mention that today six Americans are among our 82 volunteers working in the Balkans, in response to the Kosovo crisis.

MSF was accredited, as a non-governmental organisation, to the United Nations in 1993, and shortly after that, I began in my position as the organisation's Delegate to the UN in New York. In assisting the field in advocacy efforts, I am in regular contact with United Nations' officials as well as with representatives of Member States of the United Nations and, in particular, with Member States of the Security Council.

As a medical organisation, we provide care and assistance, but our responsibility in crisis situations goes further than this. First, we must provide information on the situation of populations in danger so as to raise awareness and mobilise as many people as possible and thus ensure the most adequate response to their needs. And when it is in the interest of the victims themselves, we must reveal the root causes of their situation. Merely providing medical care may seem inadequate when populations are facing famine, violence and other forms of degradation. We must therefore go further and insist on respect for medical ethics, international humanitarian and human rights laws.

How do we go about doing this? We inform our usual partners and the public at large; we discuss and negotiate with the local authorities as well as those who might play an influential role in other countries. This is what we mean by 'temoignage' or 'witnessing', an aspect of our work that is always linked with our medical activities in the field and thus guarantees the legitimacy and credibility of what we say. There have been many examples over the past few years, and I would like to share some with you today, to illustrate our insistence on this practice.

  • This week is the fifth anniversary of the genocide which took place in Rwanda where 500,000 to one million people were killed. For many years, MSF has been providing assistance in the Rwanda-Burundi-Congo area. In 1994, MSF was extensively communicating with the UN departments, agencies, Member States and, in particular the Security Council, on the plight of the civilians in the region. The first of such meetings was in April 1994, when I and one MSF representative met with the President of the Security Council of the UN, to brief him about the breadth of massacres directly witnessed by MSF teams in Butare's hospital, Rwanda. In the field, our teams were facing the most challenging mission of MSF in 25 years. Meanwhile in New York, I was trying to bring this to the attention of the Security Council. My MSF colleagues were making similar contacts in Washington and in European capitals. As you know, the word genocide was not in favor in diplomatic circles. Even an accidental use of the word by a White House spokesperson led to a retraction.
  • In February 1997, MSF - together with CARE, ICRC and OXFAM- was invited to brief the Security Council's Member States on the deteriorating situation in Burundi, Rwanda and Zaire/Congo. Later that year, we denounced the 'disappearance' of 200.000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo following the break up of the refugee camps in Kivu at the end of 1996.
  • Throughout the Bosnia-Yugoslavia crisis, our volunteers were working with the displaced and refugee populations, and I held numerous meetings with UN officials and Member States. MSF expressed the frustration of relief teams regarding the situation there, we provided first hand testimony, and spelled out the humanitarian dilemma at every stage of the conflict.
  • In Afghanistan, the Taliban government issued a decree in September of 1997 forbidding women from entering the main hospitals in Kabul. This decree is directed to both patients and those caring for them and denies all access to hospital care, particularly surgery, for women. Working in Afghanistan, we have refused to accept a form of discrimination that directly contradicts medical ethics. We protested to the local authorities and issued warnings to countries and donors actively involved in Afghanistan.

I could go on and on, and give you other examples - such as Sierra Leone and Sudan - but I would like, before ending my speech, to discuss Kosovo.

MSF was the last international organisation, together with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to leave Pristina and Kosovo on March 29. We have now more than 80 international volunteers working in Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia. MSF has been very frustrated by the lack of access to the refugees, NATO's role in coordinating the assistance to the refugees and by the inability of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to lead the coordination of the humanitarian aid in the region.

Last Friday, MSF called on UNHCR to take full responsibility for the Kosovo refugees, including those outside the NATO refugee camps. The UNHCR must ensure that it fulfills its mandate to fully protect and assist the refugees in accordance with international refugee standards. These include registering refugees, keeping families together and voluntary relocation.

NATO should not be in charge of the humanitarian coordination. NATO is first and foremost a military organisation which is currently involved in the conflict. It is not a humanitarian actor and is neither responsible nor able to coordinate humanitarian relief activities for refugees. Protection and assistance for refugees is the responsibility and mandate of the UNHCR.

In the light of the recent events in the Balkans, MSF is extremely worried about the population left behind in Kosovo. We hope to be able to return to Kosovo very soon to confirm our belief in the path we are following: to provide care for populations in danger, and act as a witness on their behalf in order to help them to improve their state of health and recover their dignity.

Thank you very much.