Dec 202017
 

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known in English as Doctors Without Borders was founded on this date in 1971 by Bernard Kouchner and a group of doctors and journalists in Paris. In the aftermath of the Biafra secession, which created a medical crisis in the region, the founding members of MSF sought to expand accessibility to medical care across national boundaries and irrespective of race, religion, creed or political affiliation. To that end, the organization emphasizes “independence and impartiality”, and explicitly precludes political, economic, or religious factors in its decision making. For these reasons, it limits the amount of funding received from governments or intergovernmental organizations. These principles have allowed MSF to speak freely with respect to acts of war, corruption, or other hindrances to medical care or human well-being. Only once in its history, during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, has the organization called for military intervention.

Kouchner

MSF’s principles and operational guidelines are highlighted in its Charter, the Chantilly Principles, and the later La Mancha Agreement. Governance is addressed in Section 2 of the Rules portion of this final document. MSF has an associative structure, where operational decisions are made, largely independently, by the five operational centers (Amsterdam, Barcelona-Athens, Brussels, Geneva and Paris). Common policies on core issues are coordinated by the International Council, in which each of the 24 sections (national offices) is represented. The International Council meets in Geneva, Switzerland, where the International Office, which coordinates international activities common to the operational centers, is also based. MSF has general consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. It received the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its members’ continued efforts to provide medical care in acute crises, as well as raising international awareness of potential humanitarian disasters. MSF also received the 1996 Seoul Peace Prize.

During the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970, the Nigerian military formed a blockade around the nation’s newly independent south-eastern region, Biafra. At this time, France was the only major country supportive of the Biafrans (the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States sided with the Nigerian government), and the conditions within the blockade were unknown to the world. A number of French doctors, led by Bernard Kouchner, volunteered with the French Red Cross to work in hospitals and feeding centers in besieged Biafra. After entering the country, the volunteers, in addition to Biafran health workers and hospitals, were subjected to attacks by the Nigerian army, and witnessed civilians being murdered and starved by the blockading forces. The doctors publicly criticized the Nigerian government and the Red Cross for their seemingly complicit behavior. These doctors concluded that a new aid organization was needed that would ignore political/religious boundaries and give priority to the welfare of victims.

The Groupe d’Intervention Médicale et Chirurgicale en Urgence (“Emergency Medical and Surgical Intervention Group”) was formed in 1971 by French doctors who had worked in Biafra, to provide aid and to emphasize the importance of victims’ rights over neutrality. At the same time, Raymond Borel, the editor of the French medical journal TONUS,