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« Interference is not a right, but a practice reserved for the strongest »

Joined Médecins sans frontières (MSF) in 1978, Rony Brauman is a former president of MSF (1982-1994) and director of studies at the Center for Reflection on Humanitarian Action and Knowledge (Crash) of MSF. He is the author of numerous books, including Think urgently (Threshold, 2006) and Humanitarian wars? Lies and poison (Textual, 2018). As MSF has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, it is taking stock of international humanitarian action.

Médecins sans frontières is 50 years old. Can we recall how the medical humanitarian movement was born?

Doctors Without Borders was created on December 22, 1971 from the meeting of two groups: doctors who worked in Biafra at war [1967-1970] and a more heterogeneous group of doctors and journalists who volunteered for East Pakistan in the 1970 cyclone but were unable to attend. Those called the “Biafrais”, the most emblematic group, had worked for the French Red Cross, under the aegis of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and had felt limited in their action. in Biafra due to the fact that medical aid was only one activity among others, with food assistance, visiting prisoners… The “Biafres” therefore had the idea of ​​creating a medical organization with a humanitarian aim, which did not exist.

And from Biafra the idea of ​​ »humanitarian interference » was born …

No, the notion of « duty to intervene » was invented later, at the end of the 1970s, by Jean-François Revel and Olivier Todd. The formula then indicated a moral obligation and a practice of solidarity of the intellectuals of the « West » towards their counterparts of the bloc of the « East ». It was only in the 1980s that « humanitarian interference » made its entry onto the public scene, this time denoting the illegal and peaceful entry of medical teams into war zones, and public denunciation. mass violence. Its main promoters were Bernard Kouchner and the lawyer Mario Bettati. I recognized myself in it at the time and only criticized it when it became, in the 1990s, the justification for armed interventions.

How did MSF start to take off?

It was in the context of the Cold War, in fact a « hot » war in the Third World, that doctors acquired a certain legitimacy. The end of the 1970s was marked by a series of conflicts, with five main foci (Central America, Central Asia, South-East Asia, Horn of Africa and Southern Africa). Between 1976 and 1982, the number of refugees in the world, a very significant indicator, rose from 3 million to 12 million, the majority being gathered in camps. In these circumstances, the establishment of medical structures was particularly indicated. MSF therefore operated both in the war zones and in their immediate periphery with the refugees.

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