NATO Speech – Rheindalen, Germany.


This lack of trust is all the stronger when UN and/or western militaries claim to use military force in furtherance of “humanitarian” goals, thereby unilaterally pronouncing a unity of purpose between humanitarian NGOs and intervention/occupation forces. In 2001 no less than Colin Powell proclaimed "NGOs are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team." Even more unhelpful, humanitarians have been labelled as sources of information. It should be obvious to you in the military that if we are part of your team, if we are on your side, if we are providing you with information, if we are advancing towards the same goals as you, then we fall directly into the crosshairs of the other side. It’s nothing personal, but we can’t afford this sort of unity.

Looking more at the community level, in places like Afghanistan the actions of our fellow NGOs reinforce the confusion of roles and purposes I’ve just described. The aid system is very diverse. The vast majority of aid agencies have broader objectives than limiting the devastation of war. Often announcing themselves as humanitarian, they are actually geared towards supporting peace, good governance, justice, sustainable development, gender
equality, and so on. In Afghanistan, many are sponsored by belligerent parties to the conflict. That means they are funded by governments whose aid policies openly declare that such financing is in direct furtherance of their foreign policy objectives.

Within this framework, it is easy to understand the perception that aid agencies contribute to the international war effort and state building policies of one side and one side only. In Afghanistan, what we see is that the massive resources of the aid system, both UN and NGO, support the Afghan government and the objectives of the Western intervention forces. Looked at critically, the aid system in Afghanistan operates as an implementing partner of your counter-insurgency, pacification and state-building policies.

It’s not just the NGOs and the UN. Non-aid actors such as the military have spent enormous resources on the delivery of aid. Essentially, you have portrayed yourselves as somehow part of this humanitarian project. Again, we do not judge your course of action, but there are consequences.

Crucially, beyond our concern for the integrity of humanitarianism, there is a pragmatic issue: the negative consequences on the local population. The moment the humanitarian project becomes militarized, either in terms of its modus operandi or its public perception, is the moment when the humanitarian project becomes a military target.

That militarization of, say, a specific hospital or healthcare programme may be a matter of fact. For instance when your armed teams provide security or care itself. Or that militarization of a specific hospital or healthcare programme may be a matter of perception because of the way it is done in other locations. Either way, the results are potentially lethal. So whether or not this targeting is legitimate doesn’t matter. The point is that when some schools or health facilities or aid convoys become militarised by one side, they all become potential targets by
the other side. No humanitarian NGO can work under such conditions.

In Afghanistan this dangerous phenomenon has been illustrated on many occasions. ISAF protection of health personnel and facilities has contributed to turning the latter into a battle ground with armed opposition groups. The result is that patients who need of care are afraid to go to these facilities. They fear an attack on the facility. They also fear retribution (retaliation) for having used these services. In too many communities, people are hence left with the impossible choice of watching a child suffer without treatment or risking a night visit from
the armed opposition.

For MSF, negotiation, not firepower, is the key to security in our health facilities and our access to people who need urgent help. That is why our policy is to enforce a “gun free zone” within our premises and vehicles; and to obtain from all belligerents a commitment to recognize MSF health structures, ambulances, offices and homes as “demilitarized sanctuaries” and thereby off-limits from combat, police, and intelligence operations.

5. The partiality of the UN and the aid system toward NATO/OER/GoA and the direct
involvement of military unit in aid operations are not condemnable per se as long as
they do not jeopardize population access to essential services.

You’ve heard that we oppose the notion of “humanitarian war.” And you’ve heard that we are critical of placing aid in service to military objectives. It may surprise you, then, that we have no principled objection to military units delivering aid as part of the war effort. We don’t have any principled objection to aid being part of hearts and minds campaigns or of UNAMA and aid agencies supporting the Afghan government.

But we would like to underscore two points. First, aid efforts undertaken to assist counterinsurgency strategies or build the state cannot be impartial because they are not based with an exclusive eye upon need. Such aid should not be attached to the term “humanitarian”. Second, and most importantly, counter-insurgency and state-building aid policies have a poor record of meeting the vital needs of civilians in a conflict situation such as Afghanistan.

Aid doesn’t go to those most in need because it is directed by other priorities. For example, the military and political priorities of the Afghan government and its allies do not cover much of the country today. In Kabul itself the level of public and internationally supported primary health care facilities is highly insufficient. Why? Because while the population of Kabul has quadrupled since 2001, it is not considered a priority in terms of counter-insurgency.

Given their partisan stance on one side of the conflict, and given their funding by NATO countries, most aid agencies are considered de facto targets by armed opposition groups in Afghanistan today. It does not matter that their aid is vitally needed by local communities. In the end, since 2006 and the expansion of hostilities to much of the country, the majority of Afghan population lie out of reach to aid providers. That is the consequence of this perception that we all share the same unified purpose.


In conclusion, I would like to thank you for this important opportunity to exchange views on the distinct roles and functions of our organizations. I could understand MSF’s position is perhaps unfair to you, as this speech is more of a monologue. We welcome a dialogue between our organizations. And I invite you to talk with Arjan Hehenkamp, one of our senior operational directors, and myself.

Before sitting down, though, I’d like to be clear on a few points.

First, I want to reaffirm the need for impartial aid operators to be allowed to act independently from the government, NATO, UN, OEF as well as AOG security agenda

Second, to reiterate our call on all warring parties and aid actors to ensure the neutrality of
functioning health facilities. This implies:
· Implementation and respect for a gun-free policy within health premises;
· An abstention of the use of force against demilitarized health or humanitarian structures, vehicles and premises.
· A commitment not to arrest or seek information from patients during their stay in our facilities.

Third, we don’t want to oppose the “virtue” of a humanitarian aid driven by impartiality to the “cynicism” of aid driven by counter-insurgency and state building imperatives. We just want to underline that we measure aid by humanitarian standard. That standard is whether aid meets the vital needs of those civilians most in need, across the entire country, and not whether aid meets other objectives.

Fourth, to underline the importance in NATO public discourse and its modes of deployment to maintain an explicit distinction between two types of aid actors – partisan deliverers of relief and impartial humanitarian actors.

Finally, I’d like to read you a paragraph from US Army, Joint Publication 3 – 57. The paragraph explains “Civil-Military Operations” and reads: “The activities of a commander that establish, maintain, influence, or exploit relations between military forces, governmental and [civilian NGOs] … and the civilian populace in a friendly, neutral or hostile operational area in order to facilitate military operations, to consolidate and achieve US objectives.”

I hope my presentation leaves you with a much better grasp of why such words leave me nervous. They leave all of us in MSF nervous. This mutual understanding is important to us. While MSF may not believe in a unity of purpose, we think that the more recently promoted unity of understanding would be closer to the reality than the unity of purpose idea. Yes, a common, or better said a mutual understanding with all warring parties that allows for the deployment of impartial aid operations in order to contain the devastations of war is what we are looking for. Thank you.

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