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Gift giving in times of war
"We are not certain that our words can save, but we do know that silence can kill."
With that philosophy in mind, a group of French doctors revolutionized international humanitarian law three decades ago. Under the banner "Médecins Sans Frontières" -- doctors without borders -- they decided that they would not only provide medical assistance but also inform the world of crimes against humanity that governments sought to hide.
A well-established international organization in 1999, they won the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a Canadian doctor, James Orbinski, who received the award on behalf of MSF as president of the organization. He helped found Médecins Sans Frontières Canada in 1991. In 1994, he headed the MSF mission in Kigali, Rwanda, during the genocide.
Orbinski spoke at McGill last Friday. He discussed humanitarianism during times of war and the challenges faced by humanitarian organizations in the post cold-war era. According to Orbinski, humanitarian actors cannot be effective unless they "stand apart from political issues at stake in a conflict and the political processes or military actions that seek to resolve these issues."
On the flip side, belligerents in a war cannot and should not pose as humanitarian actors.
While Orbinski did not venture to question the legitimacy of the US-waged "war on terrorism", he did criticize the mixing of humanitarian work with military and political actions in the US-led "bombs and bread campaign." In Orbinski's view, this has greatly hindered the work of humanitarian actors in Afghanistan.
By dropping food rations the U.S. has created the impression that it is responding to the needs of Afghan civilians, but this is not the case, says Orbinski.
"The Afghan people," he claimed, "did not need military rations but specialized medical therapeutic feeding to address profound malnutrition brought on by months and years of food deprivation."
Médecins Sans Frontières and other humanitarian NGOs had been involved in what Orbinski called "highly effective land delivery of food aid" prior to September 11. But such aid was hindered and even suspended in the early days of the bombing, "affecting not just a few but 7 million" dependent Afghans.
The danger in mixing political and military action with humanitarian aid lies in the confusion it causes amongst civilians at ground zero. They begin to question the intent if all humanitarian assistance. Orbinski explained that it was this failure to distinguish between humanitarian actors and participants in the war that led anti-Western demonstrators to set fire to UNICEF and UNHCR offices in Pakistan. "The perception is now that these agencies represent US interests - interests that today are unquestionably military and political and not simply humanitarian."
"The bombs and bread campaign and the possibility of Canadian forces and NATO forces engaging in the so-called humanitarian mission mixes the humanitarian and the military in the same action and this is harmful and wrong. Bombs, food and medicine are now one and the same, falling from the sky to both destroy and to heal."
The lecture was sponsored by the Merritt family in memory of their parents as part of an annual series of lectures on terrorism and political violence.