“Silence has long been confused with neutrality, and has been presented as a necessary condition for humanitarian action. From its beginning, MSF was created in opposition to this assumption. We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill."
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical teams often witness violence, atrocities, and neglect in the course of their work, much of which occurs in places that rarely receive international attention. While on the ground, the teams are in constant dialogue with local authorities, warring parties, and other aid agencies in an attempt to reinforce the organization's operational independence and to facilitate the delivery of the best possible medical care for patients and their communities.
But at times, MSF may speak out publicly in an effort to bring a forgotten crisis into view, alert the public to abuses occurring beyond the headlines, criticize the inadequacies of the aid system, challenge the diversion of humanitarian aid for political interests, or call out policies that restrict access to medical care or essential medicines.
From Rwanda to Srebrenica, and Chechnya to Ethiopia, MSF has born witness to tragedy and spoken out against it. Here are just a handful of examples of these efforts.
Sectarian Strife in Central African Republic (2013–Present)
In early 2014, MSF increased its operational activities in Central African Republic (CAR) and surrounding countries to provide care to those affected by escalating violence, both within and outside of the country. Despite declarations by the French government to the contrary, MSF views the crisis as ongoing and has continued its activities, while speaking out against the failure of the international community to respond to the humanitarian disaster that is tearing the small Central African country asunder.
Syrian Civil War (2011–Present)
After nearly five years, 150,000 people killed, and nine million people displaced, the war in Syria continues to rage on, with little hope in sight for those still trapped under the government’s barrel bombs or those languishing in refugee camps. MSF continues to provide medical treatment to those in need, both inside Syria and among the refugee population in the surrounding countries. However, in spite of large-scale efforts to provide aid to the Syrian people, warring parties have obstructed the delivery of much-needed humanitarian assistance. As part of our work in Syria, MSF speaks out against this blatant disregard for international law and human decency.
The Kosovo War (1998–1999)
In March 1998, the forces of the then-Federal Republic of Yugoslavia launched an assault on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, sparking a conflict that would take the lives of thousands, displace millions of people from their homes, and only end with intervention by NATO. MSF—which had been operating in Kosovo for years—immediately began providing emergency assistance to those fleeing the atrocities and aerial bombardments. As the killing and destruction continued, and high-level international mediation stalled, MSF spoke out about the deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions for Kosovar Albanian civilians.
Genocide in Rwanda (1994)
MSF operated in Rwanda from 1991 to 2007. When the country began sliding towards the brink, MSF volunteers bore witness to what would become recognized as genocide and one of the most tragic episodes of the late-twentieth century. Despite their best efforts, MSF staff found that their mission and principles were continuously violated by the genocide’s perpetrators. The grim reality of the situation led them to take an unprecedented step among humanitarian organizations: to publicly demand international armed intervention.
Ethiopia: Drought and Forced Displacement (1984–1986)
MSF began working in Ethiopia in 1984, as a famine striking the north of the country was devastating millions of people lives. The famine—the combined result of environmental factors, war, and forced agricultural collectivization—drew unprecedented amounts of aid from the international community. The Ethiopian government used some of the funding they received to redesign the country’s human geography, forcefully relocating millions of people and causing up to 100,000 more deaths. In 1985, after witnessing the government’s mistreatment of displaced persons, facilitated by international humanitarian aid, MSF spoke out against these cruelties. A few days later, they were expelled from the country.