"We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill."
It's been twenty years since Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1999. At the awards ceremony, Dr. James Orbinski, then president of MSF’s International Council, used the platform to speak out against Russia’s bombing of civilians in Chechnya—and call for the protection of humanitarian action.
Twenty years later, we reaffirm our commitment to providing independent, impartial medical care to the people who need it most. "Humanitarian responsibility has no frontiers," Orbinski said in his speech. Decades later, these words still ring true.
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. The judges chose MSF “in recognition of the organization’s pioneering humanitarian work on several continents” and to honor our medical staff, who have worked in more than 80 countries and treated tens of millions of people.
But we are known for more than our medical work—we also speak out on behalf of the people we treat and act to expose injustice. The Nobel Prize offered a platform for MSF to speak out, and we took it.
Using his acceptance speech at the award ceremony, Dr. James Orbinski, president of the MSF International Council, spoke directly to the then Russian leader Boris Yeltsin and condemned Russian violence against civilians in Chechnya.
Silence can kill
Justifying this unprecedented move, Dr. Orbinski said: “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."
Dr. Orbinski then spoke freely about the power and the limitations of humanitarianism.
“No doctor can stop a genocide. No humanitarian can stop ethnic cleansing, just as no humanitarian can make war. And no humanitarian can make peace. These are political responsibilities, not humanitarian imperatives.
“Let me say this very clearly: the humanitarian act is the most apolitical of all acts, but if its actions and its morality are taken seriously, it has the most profound of political implications. And the fight against impunity is one of these implications.”
The proceeds from the prize were used to set up a Neglected Disease Fund, designed to support pilot projects for the clinical development, production, procurement, and distribution of treatments for neglected diseases, such as Chagas, sleeping sickness, and malaria.The full transcript of the acceptance speech can be found on the official MSF Nobel Peace Prize page.