Dr Joanne Liu’s words last Wednesday were every bit as blunt as one would expect from the head of an organisation known for its outspokenness on humanitarian issues, a realm where tongues – and noses – are often held in the service of the suffering.
“If we let this go, as if it was a non-event, we are basically giving a blank cheque to any countries who are at war,” she said of US airstrikes on the Médecins sans Frontières hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz, which killed at least 22 people.
“Our patients burned in their beds; MSF doctors, nurses, and other staff were killed as they worked. Our colleagues had to operate on each other.”
If hospitals were not safeguarded, asked Liu in a speech delivered at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, how could the medical charity work in other conflicts in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen? After all, she added, “even wars have rules”.
MSF’s assertion that the US military committed a war crime in Kunduz and its call for an independent inquiry under the Geneva conventions have not only pitted it against the Pentagon, they have also served to confirm – once again – the medical charity’s reputation for monumental frankness…
The organisation was founded after a group of French doctors who had volunteered with the International Committee of the Red Cross during the Biafran crisis decided that they could not stay silent about the slaughter and hunger they had seen in the breakaway Nigerian province.
Feeling constrained by the ICRC’s way of operating and the abuses perpetrated by the Nigerian army, they joined forces with a pair of journalists to launch an organisation that would “ignore political or religious boundaries and prioritise the welfare of those suffering” – hence Médecins sans Frontières…
In order to guarantee its independence and safeguard its right to speak out, MSF ensures that the overwhelming majority of its funding – 89% – comes from individual donors.
The rest comes from governments and international organisations. In multi-party conflicts where humanitarian assistance is threatened, it uses only private donations to operate.
But, then, I live in the belly of a beast that long ago adopted a policy of walking away from responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of the American people.
Nowadays, our collateral damage may be limited to dozens of innocents killed by so-called smart bombs, easy peasy drone attacks – instead of carpet bombing whole regions, incinerating villages with napalm. I’m not convinced the difference is qualitative. Only one of opportunist political choice.