Why this Nobel Peace Prize speech from 1999 is as urgent as ever
Saving lives is not a crime — and speaking out is not political
Tell the world what’s happening to us.
The request often comes after someone in crisis has poured out their story and opened up about how they and their children are suffering — once they have realized that Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) can, and will, tell the world. As humanitarians, we made this choice long ago.
Speaking out is now as ingrained in our work as saving lives and alleviating suffering through medical action.
Twenty years ago, on December 10, 1999, MSF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering humanitarian work. Dr. James Orbinski, then president of the MSF International Council, immediately began his acceptance speech by calling out Boris Yeltsin and Russian authorities to stop bombing civilians in Chechnya.
The Nobel Peace Prize offered a platform for MSF to speak out, and we took it.
Justifying this unprecedented move, Dr. Orbinski said:
“Silence has long been confused with neutrality, and has been presented as a necessary condition for humanitarian action. From its beginning, MSF was created in opposition to this assumption…We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.”
These words still ring true today, and humanitarian aid is often attacked or even criminalized.
“Assisting people in need is not a crime,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, former MSF International president back in 2018. “Yet, across the world, our medical projects are met with bureaucratic obstacles, legal harassment, and even violence. Those seeking to help people on the move have been smeared, bullied and threatened.”
Sometimes we are criticized for getting too political. After all, our charter proudly states that MSF observes neutrality and impartiality in the name of universal medical ethics and the right to humanitarian assistance. However, we believe that the principles of neutrality and impartiality do not require us to remain silent in the face of abuses.
Our decision to speak out is always guided by MSF’s mission to alleviate suffering, protect life and health, and ensure respect for all human beings and recognition of our shared humanity.
This commitment to témoignage — a word that comes from the French verb témoigner, which literally means “to witness” — draws us closer together with our patients and the communities we serve.
Check out excerpts of Dr. Orbinski’s speech. It’s as relevant today for humanitarians as it was twenty years ago.
December 10, 1999
“Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
The people of Chechnya — and the people of Grozny…are enduring indiscriminate bombing by the Russian army. For them humanitarian assistance is virtually unknown…While the dignity of people in crisis is so central to the honor you give today, what you acknowledge in us is our particular response to it. I appeal here today to his excellency the Ambassador of Russia and through him, to President Yeltsin, to stop the bombing of defenseless civilians in Chechnya. If conflicts and wars are an affair of the state, violations of humanitarian law, war crimes and crimes against humanity apply to all of us.
Our action is to help people in situations of crisis. And ours is not a contented action…bringing medical aid to people in distress is an attempt to defend them against what is aggressive to them as human beings.
Humanitarian action is more than simple generosity, simple charity.
It aims to build spaces of normalcy in the midst of what is abnormal. More than offering material assistance, we aim to enable individuals to regain their rights and dignity as human beings.
But we act not in a vacuum, and we speak not into the wind, but with a clear intent to assist, to provoke change, or to reveal injustice.
Our action and our voice is an act of indignation, a refusal to accept an active or passive assault on the other.
Silence has long been confused with neutrality, and has been presented as a necessary condition for humanitarian action. From its beginning, MSF was created in opposition to this assumption.
We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.
Humanitarianism occurs where the political has failed or is in crisis. We act not to assume political responsibility, but firstly to relieve the inhuman suffering of failure. The act must be free of political influence, and the political must recognize its responsibility to ensure that the humanitarian can exist. Humanitarian action requires a framework in which to act.
Humanitarianism is not a tool to end war or to create peace. It is a citizen’s response to political failure.
The 1992 crimes against humanity in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
The 1997 massacres in Zaire.
The 1999 attacks on civilians in Chechnya…
For MSF, this is the humanitarian act: to seek to relieve suffering, to seek to restore autonomy, to witness to the truth of injustice, and to insist on political responsibility.
Our daily work is a struggle, and it is intensely medical, and it is intensely personal.
Our weapons are our transparency, the clarity of our intentions, as much as our medicines and our surgical instruments.
What we as a civil society movement demand is change, not charity.
Humanitarian action exists only to preserve life, not to eliminate it.
Humanitarian action comes with limitations. It cannot be a substitute for political action. In Rwanda, early in the genocide, MSF spoke out to the world to demand that genocide be stopped by the use of force. And so did the Red Cross. It was however, a cry met with institutional paralysis; with acquiescence to self-interest, and with a denial of political responsibility to stop a crime that was «never again» to go unchallenged. The genocide was over before the UN Operation Turquoise was launched.
Let me say this very clearly: the humanitarian act is the most apolitical of all acts, but if it actions and its morality are taken seriously, it has the most profound of political implications. And the fight against impunity is one of these implications.
Hundreds of thousands of our contemporaries are forced to leave their lands and their family to search for work, food, to educate their children and to stay alive. Men and women risk their lives to embark on clandestine journeys only to end up in a hellish immigration detention center, or barely surviving on the periphery of our so called civilized world.
Our volunteers and staff live and work among people whose dignity is violated every day. Despite grand debates on world order, the act of humanitarianism comes down to one thing: individual human beings reaching out to their counterparts who find themselves in the most difficult circumstances.
One bandage at a time, one suture at a time, one vaccination at a time.
Humanitarian responsibility has no frontiers.
As we accept this extraordinary honor, we want again to thank the Nobel Committee for its affirmation of the right to humanitarian assistance around the globe.
For its affirmation of the road MSF has chosen to take: to remain outspoken, passionate and deeply committed to its core principles of volunteerism, impartiality, and its belief that every person deserves both medical assistance and the recognition of his or her humanity.”
*This speech has been shortened.
In 2019, we’ve spoken out about a number of pressing issues, including the need for more humane policies to address the global refugee and migration crisis.
We go the extra mile to counter false narratives that abound — from the United States to Europe, from Africa to Asia — about people who are forced to ﬂee. Seeking safety is not a crime.
MSF provides medical care to refugees and displaced people all over the world. Increasingly, we see that people on the move are trying to survive not just the extreme challenges of the journey itself, but cruel deterrence policies put in place by governments trying to keep out migrants and asylum seekers. We share the testimonies of our patients, including stories of harrowing violence and abuse in Libyan detention centers, in refugee camps in Bangladesh, and along the migration routes through Central America and Mexico.
Twenty years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, we vow to continue to speak out loudly and forcefully about what we witness in the field.