Twenty years on, MSF reveals how the organization spoke out about a conflict marked by ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, targeted assaults of humanitarian organizations and individuals, and the unfulfilled promises by the International Community.
MSF claimed that mass distributions of aid were simply a ‘humanitarian alibi’ of the international community that lacked the will to take political and military measures to end the conflict. Some MSF leaders even called for an armed intervention against the Bosnian-Serb artillery bombing Sarajevo.
In December 1992, MSF published a report describing the Bosnian Serb policy of ethnic cleansing. They denounced the Bosnian Serbs for hindering supplies to Srebrenica and Gorazde Muslim besieged enclaves. They raised awareness and denounced the lack of protection of the population when the enclaves came under attack in 1994 and 1995 despite being declared safe zones by the UN.
In August 1995, MSF denounced a lack of access to the Serb refugees and from 2000, MSF advocated for parliamentary commissions to be set up to investigate the military and political responsibilities of the States involved in the Srebrenica crisis.
This Speaking Out Case Study explores the variety of questions and dilemmas MSF faced, Among them: to what extent should MSF risk the lives of its staff in order to operate in conflict zones? Should MSF condemn obstacles set up to limit the access to the population if it meant no longer having any access at all? Should MSF denounce the fact that humanitarian aid was presented by the international political leaders as the only solution to the conflict and call for military force, an action that would lead to loss of human life?
The “Genocide of Rwandan Tutsis 1994” case study is describing the difficulties and dilemmas met by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) during the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis in April, May and June 1994. The killings occurred in spite of the presence of UN troops in Rwanda, and the members of the UN Security Council were slow to call the Tutsi extermination ‘genocide’, hence evading the obligation to intervene and stop the slaughter, as stipulated by international law.
MSF met with government officials and issued public statements to try to mobilise governments out of their inertia, eventually calling to an international armed intervention.
These statements and actions resulted from numerous debates, conflicts and contradictory interpretations of the Rwandan situation and of MSF’s role addressing the following dilemmas: Was it acceptable for a humanitarian organisation, to remain silent when confronted with genocide or, on the contrary, to call for armed intervention, an action that would lead to loss of human life? Could MSF call on UN member states to pursue other means of action, thereby risking giving legitimacy to ineffective responses, given the nature of genocide? Launched just as France proposed to intervene in Rwanda, was there a risk that MSF’s appeal for armed intervention would be appropriated for political gain?
The camps were transformed into rear bases from which the reconquest of Rwanda was sought, via a massive diversion of aid, violence, propaganda, and threats against refugees wishing to repatriate.
Was it acceptable for MSF to assist people who had committed genocide? Should MSF accept that its aid was instrumentalised by leaders who used violence against the refugees and proclaim their intention to continue the war in order to complete the genocide they had started? For all that, could MSF renounce assisting a population in distress and on what basis should its arguments be founded?
By agreeing to provide a minimally acceptable level of relief to a besieged population, wasn’t MSF contributing to the strategy of the besieging troops while concurrently softening their image? Could MSF call for the evacuation of civilians who wished to leave thereby risking abetting the ethnic cleansing policy of the besieging army? Having trusted the UN Protection Force’s commitment to protect the enclave and its population, must MSF accept partial culpability for or complicity in the UN’s abandonment of the enclave and the ensuing massacre of the population? Didn’t MSF give the population the false impression that it would be safe as long as the team was present? Is it the role of a humanitarian medical organisation to issue an appeal for an investigative parliamentary commission then, once it is established, to actively monitor it with a critical eye? Contrarily, how can MSF not try to understand the circumstances and responsibilities, which, at the global level, led to the abandonment and massacre of a population to which its teams had provided relief? Can MSF be content with calling for a parliamentary investigation without ensuring that it asks the types of questions likely to elicit answers that shed light on the events? Should Srebrenica be viewed as an accident of history or as a clear-cut example of the impossibility of protecting populations under international mandates established by the UN?