The Real Reasons MSF Left Afghanistan

August 19, 2004
Letters to the Editor
Published in The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal

The Real Reasons MSF Left Afghanistan

Cheryl Benard misrepresents why Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) took the difficult decision to leave Afghanistan ("Afghanistan Without Doctors," Aug. 12).

The Afghan government has not fulfilled its obligations under international law to investigate and prosecute those who planned and carried out the murder of five MSF aid workers in Badghis in June. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the murders, falsely accusing MSF of working for U.S. interests and stating MSF could be attacked again. It would be irresponsible to risk the lives of volunteers or national staff in an atmosphere where aid workers are killed with impunity and one warring party directly threatens us.

Ms. Benard rightly identifies our criticism of the U.S.-led coalition for actions that jeopardize the safety of aid workers. Dropping "humanitarian" food packets during the initial aerial strikes, calling aid workers "force multipliers," and distributing leaflets that condition aid on civilians providing military intelligence calls the motives of aid workers into question. While political realities have indeed changed, as she says, the erosion of respect for aid workers is not the work of fate.

MSF does not object to militaries "building village clinics" or "offering medical help." But these are legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions, not humanitarian assistance.

Neither are psychological operations designed to win "hearts and minds" a task to be confused with humanitarian aid.

People in crisis deserve to have access to impartial, independent humanitarian aid based on needs alone, without regard to military political objectives.

In the "war against terror" all factions want us to choose sides. Ms. Benard's "objective assessment" that aid workers should call for "more military presence" and have "closer cooperation" with one warring party is merely another example of this logic. We refuse to choose sides, just as we refuse to accept a vision of a future where civilians trapped in the hell of war can only receive life-saving aid from the armies that wage it.

Dr. Rowan Gillies
President, MSF International Council