War crimes and politics of terror in Chechnya 1994-2004

Médecins Sans Frontières

The ‘War crimes and politics of terror in Chechnya 1994-2004’ case study describes the constraints, questions and dilemmas experienced by MSF while speaking out during the two Russian-Chechen wars and the following years of ‘normalization’. Was speaking out the right thing to do with regard to Russia, a power with a veto at the UN Security Council and a tradition of propaganda control of the public arena? Was it realistic to rely on raising the awareness of other UN member states via their public’s opinion? In a context of terror, when dealing with a regime in denial of the reality of a conflict, was it useful and was it up to MSF to call for having this situation qualified as ‘war’? Should MSF take into account the possibility of a casual link between instances of its public speaking out and the security incidents involving its staff? When one of its staff members was taken hostage, should MSF speak out in the media to create visibility that affords him/her some protection, or conversely remain as discrete as possible so as to avoid a rise in his/her ‘market value?’ Should MSF publically point out responsibilities, negligence, or even complicity of the government on which soil the kidnapping had occurred, thereby taking active steps to secure the hostage’s release or should it refrain from such a discourse so as to avoid the opposite effect? Should MSF continue to publically denounce the violence inflicted on people in the region, at the risk of radicalising those parties to the conflict responsible for the kidnapping, and place the hostage’s life in danger? 
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Médecins Sans Frontières
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Jun 2, 2016
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 The case study ‘MSF and Srebrenica 1993-2003’ explores the constraints and dilemmas raised when MSF spoke out about the events that occurred in Srebrenica’s Muslim enclave. The enclave was besieged in 1993 and then seized by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995. 8,000 men over the age of 16 were massacred, despite the presence of United Nations peacekeeping forces supposedly providing protection in what had been declared a ‘security zone’. With teams present in the enclave throughout, Médecins Sans Frontières testified to what happened and called on the various countries involved to hold inquiries and establish where military and political responsibility lay for the fall of the enclave and abandon of the people of Srebrenica.

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?

 On 14 December 1995, the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords ended the separatist war in former Yugoslavia and created the State of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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?

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