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MSF Statement on Arjan Erkel's Release
June 15, 2004
Brussels/Moscow, 15 June 2004 - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) refuses to reimburse a payment negotiated and paid by the Dutch government for the release of Arjan Erkel. Arjan Erkel is a Dutch citizen and MSF humanitarian aid worker who was abducted on August 12, 2002 in Dagestan and released on April 11, 2004 after 20 months in captivity. National governments are bound by international law to respect and ensure protection of humanitarian aid workers. Throughout his kidnapping the Dutch government failed to hold the Russian government accountable for Arjan Erkel's kidnapping and is now demanding that MSF reimburse a payment made by the Dutch for his release.
Arjan Erkel's kidnapping was among the longest of any humanitarian aid worker in the Caucasus. There is no doubt that the length of Arjan's detention reflects a failure by all parties involved and the nature and reasons for this failure must be addressed honestly. In this case the primary responsibility lies with the Russian Government who is ultimately responsible for the protection of humanitarian aid workers on its soil. In August 2003, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1502 urging governments to ensure the protection of aid workers and to "ensure that crimes against such personnel do not remain unpunished". This did not happen in the case of Arjan Erkel. The official investigation by the Russian Federation was obstructed, delayed, and even stopped for 6 months. In addition, throughout the crisis the Dutch government consistently failed to address the Russian Federation concerning Arjan's case with the political attention and urgency it demanded.
MSF was afforded little contact with the Russian government and was forced to confront this political passivity and lack of resolution of this crime in the public media. On three occasions, MSF raised media pressure on both the Russian and Dutch governments to do much more to secure Arjan's release. After the third public campaign, more than two weeks prior to Arjan's release, the Dutch government severed all official contact with MSF and threatened to hold MSF publicly responsible should he be killed. On April 8, MSF was informed at the last minute of an arrangement that the Dutch government had negotiated. As had been the case throughout the 20 months, MSF's only priority was to see Arjan released. The senior MSF representative agreed that the Dutch government should go ahead. However, MSF gave no commitment on financial matters and stipulated that this would be discussed at a later stage.
After Arjan Erkel's release, the Dutch government claimed all credit for it, including having "greenlighted the operation". Soon after, however, the Dutch government began demanding that MSF cover the cost of their deal, even requesting that the payment be reimbursed in cash to avoid public scrutiny. During a meeting on May 3, Dutch government representatives refused to discuss their role and responsibility in the case and also threatened to cut off government funding of MSF humanitarian aid projects and to influence other European governments and institutions to do the same if the organization did not comply with their demand for repayment.
In recent public declarations, the Dutch government has presented this situation as a straightforward business transaction whereby they made 'an advance' to MSF. This is untrue. MSF did not receive or borrow any money from the Dutch government and was not involved in the negotiations. Statements made by the Dutch government completely obscure the real issue, which is the political nature of this kidnapping and its non-resolution for 20 months.
One month after Arjan Erkel's release and under immense pressure from the Dutch government, the General Director of MSF Switzerland - Arjan Erkel's employer - unilaterally offered to close the deal for 50% of the amount. However, his decision to make this offer was subsequently revoked by the MSF international association. The Dutch government has since refused to meet MSF and rejected the offer of the Swiss General Director, reiterating their demand for MSF to pay the full amount. Although this ongoing pressure has caused significant internal tension for MSF, the organization will not be pressured into a reimbursement. MSF never mandated the Dutch government to negotiate on its behalf. The organization therefore cannot take responsibility for an arrangement it was not involved in and for which it did not negotiate the terms. MSF would welcome an independent public investigation into the management and resolution of this kidnapping, providing full transparency to the public.
MSF has upheld its responsibilities. Arjan Erkel's release was MSF's top priority for 20 months: the organization deployed massive efforts and means, urged political and diplomatic action on the part of governments and launched public campaigns calling for Arjan's release - including mobilizing the public to provide 400,000 signatures in a petition urging governments to act. Faced with political inaction and passivity, MSF also pursued other avenues, including hiring private individuals and placing money at their disposal in an attempt to obtain Arjan's release. For this purpose, MSF deposited 250,000 Euro in the Dutch embassy in Moscow. It was kept there for security reasons only and MSF is now requesting that the remaining 230,000 Euro be returned to the organization.
MSF's programs in the Northern Caucasus focus on providing medical assistance to civilians affected by the ongoing, brutal conflict in Chechnya. One of the few independent humanitarian organisations still working in the region, MSF had to suspend its humanitarian activities in Dagestan and considerably limit operations in Chechnya and Ingushetia as a result of this kidnapping. The Russian Federation must respect humanitarian aid workers and other governments must actively defend the right for aid workers to be working alongside the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, this is not the reality today and is symptomatic of how western governments continue to ignore the plight of Chechen civilians who, day after day, continue to be victims of abuse and violence and are increasingly left with little or no assistance.
Tags: Arjan Court Case