"It is not our job to form a front against the war, against the doctrine of conducting a preventive war, because this does not change the way we provide help to our patients. However, it is our job to protest against the fusion of humanitarian and military roles. Our task is a humanitarian one, not a political one," - Tine Dusauchoit, Director General of Médecins Sans Frontières-Belgium.
De Morgen: The humanitarian sector has recently been cooperating with war planners. What are your thoughts on this situation?
Dusauchoit: "I would like to make a distinction between general preparations for emergency situations and the specific way this is unfolding in the context of Iraq. We obviously have to prepare ourselves for all possible emergencies. It would be irresponsible of us not to do so. However, what we are now seeing is preparations being jointly made between the US military, UN agencies and NGOs. We find this extremely alarming. Agreements have already been reached about each party's position in the area of conflict. That is inconsistent with the underlying philosophy of humanitarian action: after making an unbiased assessment of the needs, carrying out neutral operations for the benefit of people in distress, irrespective of what side they are on."
De Morgen: In the light of this philosophy, how are you preparing yourself for activities in Iraq?
Dusauchoit: "We have to make a distinction between our presence in Iraq and in the region. We have been represented in neighbouring countries for several years now. Iran is one example. This offers a base for deploying resources within a short space of time. It is not so easy in Iraq. We were operating there from 1991 to 1993 but it then became impossible because the government set conditions we found unacceptable.
In this sense we do not differentiate between Saddam Hussein and George Bush: without guarantees of independence we prefer not to be there. We are now looking for a way to be able to operate on a neutral basis. "The difficult procedures that have to be undertaken in order to operate in Iraq may be one of the reasons that NGOs are only too willing to agree to the US army's cooperation proposals.
This may offer the key advantage in the short term of being present in the area but in the long term this can be extremely damaging for the principle of independent humanitarian action. It is also extremely important for the safety of our workers not to be considered as part of the warring factions. There is a risk of this distinction becoming blurred in Iraq."
De Morgen: What can be done about this?
Dusauchoit: "Humanitarian organisations have to become more vocal. We have to insist upon the importance of impartiality. In the long term that is the only guarantee of being able to continue to work."
De Morgen: One of your principles involves calling attention to emergency situations. You did that in the case of Afghanistan but not in Iraq. Why not?
Dusauchoit: "It is our policy to bear witness only to things we ourselves have seen or know about. We have been in Afghanistan for a long time and we know the needs there. We do not have any such knowledge of Iraq, because in the present context no one is in a position to make an objective assessment of the needs."
De Morgen: As part of civil society, is MSF not missing a chance to condemn the war plans in the same way that your organisation challenged the US for denying poor countries access to essential medicines?
Dusauchoit: "The campaign for access to essential medicines is focused on the interests of the patient. It is not our job to form a front against the war, against the doctrine of conducting a preventive war, because this does not change the way we provide help to our patients. However, it is our job to protest against the fusion of humanitarian and military roles. Our task is a humanitarian one, not a political one."
De Morgen: Can MSF's action be independent of its donors? For example, your organisation receives support from Echo, the European Commission's humanitarian agency, which has a political agenda.
Dusauchoit: "Seventy to eighty percent of our resources come from non-institutional sources. Echo is a leading donor on our list of institutional financial backers but the cooperation is initiated the other way around. We submit a proposal for a project and if this is approved we are provided with funds for operating on an independent basis. However, in the US, over 50% of the main NGOs are dependent on the government. There the principle is " he who pays the piper calls the tune".