“It is outrageous that states expect health workers to refuse treatment to patients based on politics or military considerations,” said Saavedra. “Our teams are considered by those fighting counterterrorism wars to be part of their military strategy. We are accepted when we are useful but rejected when we are [perceived as not serving] their military and political purpose. We cannot accept this—it prevents us from treating patients and goes against everything that being humanitarian stands for.”
Research participants pointed out that the perceived proximity of humanitarian actors to states in counterterrorism wars generated huge suspicion from armed opposition groups that often rejected engaging with MSF or other humanitarian organizations. Currently, MSF finds itself too often restricted to one side of a conflict’s front line with a counterterrorism force that wants to take advantage and an opposition that won’t talk or is hostile.
These research findings offer unique insight into the realities of working in counterterrorism environments. Frontline workers know how difficult it is to operate in conflict zones, and they say counterterrorism laws and practices make it even harder. But the perspective of frontline workers is rarely considered in policy discussions on countering terrorism.
“Unfortunately, the findings of this research do not come as a surprise,” said Francoise Saulnier, MSF’s international legal director. “The war on terror has eroded the protection of the medical mission by prioritizing domestic counterterrorism laws rather than international humanitarian law. This often leaves our teams exposed to states’ interpretations of laws and of the role of health care.”