Humanitarian Action Post 9/11: Doctors Without Borders Head Speaks Out
Nicolas de Torrenté, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), spoke about the challenges facing humanitarian aid agencies.
Nicolas de Torrenté, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), spoke to students, faculty, and members of the public February 21 on the issues facing humanitarian action since September 11. Médecins Sans Frontières was the 1999 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for the organization's worldwide humanitarian work. The lecture was cosponsored by International Studies, the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, the School of Public Health, and the School of Medicine.
De Torrenté spoke on the pressures facing humanitarian agencies to drop the established notions of independence, impartiality, and neutrality that guide their action and to join the anti-terrorism campaign. He also expressed skepticism about the Bush administration's efforts to couple humanitarian assistance with the war on terrorism.
Humanitarian actors should strongly resist attempts to be associated with official agencies linked to political objectives such as the war on terrorism, as doing so may make their efforts ineffectual, de Torrenté said. "The ability of humanitarian actors to access populations in danger depends on obtaining the consent of local forces." This has been problematic in Afghanistan where armed U.S. and British soldiers wear local civilian dress, making it difficult for aid workers to gain the trust of Afghan military commanders, and effectively putting many parts of Afghanistan out of reach, said de Torrenté. "To be relevant, humanitarian action must remain fiercely independent," he concluded.
Beyond the effects of the war on terrorism, de Torrenté also outlined Médecins Sans Frontières campaign, "Access to Essential Medicines" that was launched several years ago. Field doctors, de Torrenté said, "could not treat their patients because essential drugs were either out of production, ineffective, too expensive, or simply not available." In response, Médecins Sans Frontières is mounting a campaign for public awareness, and a petition campaign, as well as both applying pressure to, and working with, pharmaceutical companies.
Stan Paul, director of communications at the School of Public Policy and Social Research, contributed to this article.
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Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2002