Appalling Ruling in Court Case Between Dutch Government and MSF

Geneva, July 14, 2008 – The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is shocked by the judgment rendered today by Switzerland's highest judicial body, the Federal Tribunal, which rejected the arguments of MSF in a kidnapping ransom case.

Following four years of proceedings, and in spite of two previous rulings in favor of MSF in the courts of first instance and appeals, the Federal Tribunal partly ruled in favor of the Dutch state by stating that the financial burden of a ransom paid to free an MSF staff member should be shared between the two parties. This decision sets a grave precedent for independent humanitarian action in zones of conflict.

The case concerns repayment of a ransom paid by the Dutch authorities to obtain the release of Arjan Erkel, a Dutch citizen and MSF head of mission, who was held hostage in the North Caucasus region for 20 months after being abducted in August, 2002.

"Following two rulings in favor of MSF, this judgment is appalling,” said MSF President Isabelle Segui-Bitz. “It obscures the role played by a government that negotiated and paid a ransom, and then passed on the bill to MSF. This decision forms part of a more serious trend, which undermines independent humanitarian action. This ruling, given in the very country where the Geneva Conventions were signed, is worrying for teams working in zones of conflict, such as Somalia or Darfur,” she said.

Since the facts established by the Geneva Court of Justice in February 2008 unequivocally confirmed the cogency of MSF's position, it is unacceptable to now ask a humanitarian organization to share the cost of a ransom negotiated and paid by a government.

By agreeing to downgrade the consequences of the abduction of a humanitarian worker to a mere commercial dispute, as requested by the Dutch government, the Federal Tribunal's ruling is contributing to making unpunished crimes against humanitarian workers – which have become more frequent in recent years – part of everyday life.