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Judith Soussan

Graduated in International relations (Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris), Logistics in humanitarian settings (Bioforce-Développement) and Anthropology (University Paris I), Judith Soussan joined MSF in 1999. After missions in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Sudan and the Palestinian territories, she worked in Paris, in particular on protection of civilians. Following a few years break from MSF working as a radio reporter, she has come back to Crash in 2015. She contributed to the book "Saving lives and staying alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (chapter "Security Issues and Practices in an MSF Mission in the Land of Jihad" - London: Hurst and Co, 2016).


Violence and access: priority to operational considerations - November-December 2003
Nyala: emergency aid, loss of access and public declarations - January 2004
Mornay: a 'protective presence' amidst the violence? - February 2004
'Silent diplomacy' on the violence, repeated public statements on the relief effort February-March 2004


Alert and denunciation of the violence by MSF - May-July 2004
Joining the polemic over genocide - May 2004
When assistance is equivalent to protection - May 2004


Relocations: concern for the safety of the displaced - summer 2004 
International mobilisation for armed intervention: from "genocide" to "insecurity"  summer 2004
MSF maintains a distinct position on the "protection of civilians" - 2006
The debate over priority victims: a debate on "protected" persons? - November 2006 


Like the case study The Hunting and killing of Rwandan Refugees in Zaire, this study on Darfur is based on an indirect definition of protection: what responsibility, what discourse and what practices has MSF adopted with regard to the violence in Darfur, alongside (and in conjunction with) health care provision? We have extended this definition somewhat, as was done for The Hunting…, taking the view that protection – in the form of taking care not to expose civilians to danger – is also actualised in the very way in which relief is deployed (procedures, concrete choices).

The geographical area considered is the area covered by MSF-France – roughly speaking, West Darfur. We make no claim whatsoever that the issues and choices described are representative of those faced by other MSF sections in South and North Darfur.

The period considered covers the Darfur crisis from 2003 to end 2006. Within this period, we have selected certain salient moments when protection issues seemed to us to be at stake, though not explicitly – MSF’s questionings and acts were never formulated in such terms, especially since they took place in a context where it had become more problematic than ever for MSF to use the word “protection”, which was used freely by other parties. Indeed, Darfur can be seen as the first major crisis concerned by the new doctrine adopted by the international community in 2001: the “responsibility to protect”.

Many of the moments selected occurred in 2004: we will consider the beginnings of the crisis, the emergency situation before restrictions on access were lifted, with particular attention to the choices made concerning speaking out against the violence and to concrete situations in which exposing civilians to danger was an issue. Subsequently, when Darfur had been placed on the international agenda, the positioning of MSF must be understood in the light of the derestriction of access and the international initiatives relating to “protection”. Thereafter, the crisis in West Darfur settled in for the long haul, and the issues facing MSF in 2005-2006 were much the same as in the earlier periods; for this period, our focus will thus be rather on MSF’s positioning with regard to military intervention.Abbreviations: RCO: Revue critique des opérations au Darfour [A Critique of MSF Operations in Darfur] – sitrep: situation report – AR: President’s annual report – AU: African Union




The first period that is worth analysing from the standpoint of the protection issue is the beginning of MSF’s operations in Darfur. Did MSF try to move as quickly as possible towards the area where we knew a great deal of violence was occurring? Once on site, what was MSF’s positioning with respect to the past and present violence, in a context of highly limited access and pressure from the Sudanese government? And how did this positioning change over time?These questions have much in common with those asked by the Critique of MSF-France Operations in Darfur (Sudan) – October 2003-October 2004 (C. Danet, S. Delaunay, E. Depoortere, F. Weissman, MSF / Cahiers du CRASH, 2007; hereafter referred to as RCO). This internal, retrospective analysis of the October 2003-October 2004 period is used here both as a major source of facts and as reflecting a way of thinking and speaking of these matters that is worth analysing on its own account (the language used in speaking of what we did, what we should have done, etc.), in contrast to other forms of discourse and practices that developed during the operation.




In early 2003, MSF was informed that the conflict in Darfur was intensifying and requested permission to enter the region. The government issued a flat refusal. Not until the signature of a ceasefire agreement in early September and the relative openness that followed did MSF obtain (in October) permission to enter Darfur. Two exploratory missions were undertaken in October and November.

The weight of safety considerations in the assessment of the situation – The second exploratory mission report described the consequences of the violence in villages in various locations (the Djebel Mara area, Nyala, Zalingei) and tried to analyse the rationale underlying these episodes of violence, as a guide to the best course of action for MSF. Concerning the displaced people at Zalingei, the report concluded: “if these people come here and agree to live in such difficult conditions, it’s because the security problem is real. To send them back now with a promise of security would be criminal”. Exploring the possibility of mobile clinics to reach people who had fled their homes in the Djebel Mara area, the report notes: “we can be afraid that the leader is using our presence as an argument to call back the population in villages which are not 100% safe yet… I am thinking that their main priority now is their security, and their food. Health is probably not the main priority for the time being” (exploratory mission report, 10-19 November 2003, medical coordinator, p. 6).

Thus, from the outset, MSF’s assessment of the situation and of the possibilities for providing medical care gave particular attention to the nature, intensity and evolution of the violence committed in different places and against different groups: the aim was indeed to evaluate the situations of different categories of people, with differing degrees of vulnerability (as well as different degrees of operational feasibility for MSF). In each case, the safety of people menaced with future violence was the first consideration, leading to recommendations that varied according to the specific situation: to assist people grouped in camps, in order not to send them home to a place where they would still be in danger and where they could not subsist because their crops had been destroyed (Zalingei, Nyala); to consider not providing assistance in villages caught up in the rebellion and whose inhabitants had fled into the surrounding mountains, as in this case aid could be used as bait to induce them to return to their villages, where they would be in greater danger (the Djebel Mara area).

Projects to provide assistance to the displaced population of Nyala and Zalingei were initiated on 9 and 24 December 2003 respectively.

Access difficulties and silence concerning the violence – At the same time (December 2003), MSF-Belgium produced a report based on a mortality study and interviews with Darfur refugees in Chad. Paris, whose immediate goal was to establish and consolidate its operations in Darfur, opposed the dissemination of the report, ostensibly on grounds of quality (the report was termed “no good” and the methods used were challenged). In fact, “Paris feared that the dissemination of an MSF document attacking Khartoum would antagonize the regime and comprise its attempt to develop relief operations in Darfur. We were not yet operational and our priority was access to the victims”The quotation and accompanying information are drawn from the RCO, p. 111-112.. MSF-B accepted this ‘veto’, though with misgivings, and the report was buried.

In hindsight, the relevance of this choice was later questioned. In his annual report for 2004- 2005, making a connection between information on the violence and increased aid (the former being necessary in order to obtain the latter), MSF-F’s President expressed regret that MSF-F had blocked the release of the report:

“Information on how serious the situation of the people of Darfur was could have emerged earlier from MSF. Early in the crisis, in refugee camps in Chad, our Brussels colleagues had collected a great deal of information on the acts of violence against civilians. These were made public late in the day, owing to pressure from the French section, which was afraid that making the information public would raise difficulties in obtaining permission to work within Sudan. By exerting this type of pressure, we were shooting ourselves in the foot. In order for the relief effort in Darfur to be stepped up, it was absolutely necessary that the seriousness of the crisis be known to the public. I think we should not take the responsibility of exerting pressure to delay the release of this sort of information” (J.-H. Bradol, AR 2004-2005). “The work of requesting access should have been combined with efforts to alert the public to the intensity of the violence” (interview, J.-H. Bradol, July 2006).



MSF began working in the camps of Intifada, near Nyala, on 9 December. About 10,000 displaced had gathered in these makeshift camps, with 50 to 150 more arriving daily. The authorities considered the camps to be illegal and planned to move the people further off, to Belel – a plan that the displaced viewed with fear and MSF with concern. In MSF’s view, the site met neither the security requirements nor the physical conditions (access to water, site not prepared)  for  taking  in  tens  of  thousands  of  people.The fear shown by the displaced and the concern of MSF were probably linked: according to a background document for the RCO, “the terror shown by the people seems to have been the decisive factor in MSF’s refusal to approve and accompany the move to Belel ”.  For  these  reasons,  MSF  expressed  its opposition to the ‘relocation’ plan. Tension arose between MSF and the UN agencies, which had agreed to transfer their operations to Belel (UNICEF and the WHO moved there in the second week of January, and OCHA asked MSF to tell the displaced people that it would be there as well), thus depriving the displaced of any choice in the matter by depriving them of basic services: in the eyes of MSF, this amounted to forced displacement of the population. On the Sudanese side, the Humanitarian Affairs Commissioner declared the MSF clinic “closed” and indicated to the MSF team that its refusal to cooperate might have consequences for its authorisation to operate.

The camp was closed on 14 January. The government’s lorries arrived, sealing off the camp; the events proceeded without physical violence, though with verbal violence. A few people got into the lorries, surrounded by the police, and then got out, but the great majority fled to escape the displacement operation. The MSF team was present throughout this process. It even spent the night of 13-14 January inside the camp, in order to be present for the closure: this was a spur-of-the-moment decision, apparently not debated by the team, and one that clearly reflects the hope that the presence of expatriate aid workers could prevent possible acts of violence. The expatriates probably did not generally take on the role of ‘shields’ or ‘human rights sentinels’; nonetheless, at that point in time they had the role of ‘watchdogs’, because they were potential eyewitnesses. And in the event, they think that their presence helped to avoid some excesses.Interview with the former coordinator for Nyala, February 2007; report on this interview for the RCO.

In response to the closure of the camp, MSF published its first press release on Darfur on 15 January: “Following the forced closure of the Nyala camps by the Sudanese authorities, MSF is concerned about the fate of the people”. The press release mentioned that these people, including MSF patients under treatment, had been dispersed, and provided background on these people, who had reached Nyala “after having suffered violence and seen their villages and crops pillaged and burnt, in the hope of at last finding a safe haven and essential aid”.

What were the reasons for issuing this public statement? Probably MSF’s need to mark its disagreement with this government decision – taken against the will of the displaced, and approved by other agencies – moved it to take a strong stance against a population displacement that seemed like an act of violence, after all the violence they had already suffered. But it seems to us that the real triggering factor was the loss of access to people we had been assisting, and who had therefore entered our sphere of responsibility – particularly in the case of patients under treatment – all this happening in a deeply worrying context of violence and vulnerability (there was also concern for all the inaccessible people, but that was more in the background, more abstract). The press release mobilises the notion of an assistance-security duo, a reference to the two basic requirements for the protection of refugees/displaced people as defined by the HCR – requirements that MSF considered were not met at Belel.

The Sudanese authorities were furious about the press release, responding on the ground by refusing MSF permission to open a nutritional centre in the town of Nyala, and in Khartoum by threatening to expel the head of mission. Thus, the public statement directly implicating the authorities had a concrete impact at the central and local levels. In retrospect, however, the emergency desk, while recognising the inhibiting effect of the authorities’ reaction on MSF, and on the Sudan desk in particular, expressed doubt that the press release had direct consequences for MSF’s ability to operate in Darfur: “At the time of [the closure of] the Intifada camp,  relations with the authorities became strained… We had the feeling that our press release had had an impact, but the obstruction in fact had begun before we issued it. Being summoned before the authorities and threatened with expulsion had a dampening effect on us” (manager, emergency desk, interview in preparation for the RCO). “Our hard-hitting press release did not prevent us from opening two programmes, at Mornay and Zalingei” (deputy manager, emergency desk, interview in preparation for the RCO). It should be noted that although these remarks put into perspective the supposed negative impact of the press release, no positive impact is mentioned.




Permission to initiate a programme for the displaced at Mornay was given on 27 January. Although the team had initially planned to spend a few days in Zalingei, it decided in the end to head for Mornay as quickly as possible, having seen signs that a crisis was imminent. It arrived on 31 January, amidst a campaign of destruction just getting under way. The team had barely had time to set up and had just begun a measles vaccination campaign, when it had to cope with a flood of 80 wounded people from 4 to 15 February (in addition to the 480 wounded they found on arrival), without a surgeon and virtually no referral capability, as the roads were too dangerous (a dozen patients were referred elsewhereOn this occasion, the team had to gamble with people’s safety: for the first referral, so as not to send the MSF car, the logistician paid a taxi to take a patient to El Geneina. The driver, against instructions, brought some police officers along; the taxi was attacked and all were killed except the patient. On another occasion, to patients who were refusing to ride in the ministry of health convoy (the minister was a doctor with close ties to the Janjaweed), the team said “that it would check up on their health and safety later, in El Geneina. This reassured the patients somewhat, and they agreed to board” (Mornay logistician interview in preparation for the RCO).). Confined to the camp, the team saw every day the effects of the methodical campaign of destruction raging all around them. Apart from the inflow of wounded, the number of displaced rose very quickly: from 7,000 to 25,000 between December and January, and then to 60,000 during February with the arrival of 40,000 more. All were fleeing attacks on their villages, whose tremendously violent character could be gauged from the piecemeal accounts of the displaced.

This episode was a very intense experience for the team and for headquarters, because it involved several factors that are highly significant for MSF.

First, it touched on what is perceived, over the long term and by a majority of MSF members, as the core of our operational legitimacy: providing care for the direct victims of the violence of war, close to the scene of this violence.MSF had recently made efforts to bring this aim (conflict as a legitimate place for MSF ‘since its founding’ etc.) into line with the concrete reality of our operations, shifting towards surgery and direct provision of care amidst the violence (see main document, Part III). The issues crystallised in the care provided at Mornay despite the difficulties involved and the lack of human resources; in this case, none of the wounded in the care of MSF died. An action that, in this case, was part of what international humanitarian law means by “protection of civilian populations” in conflicts, i.e. delivery of aid to groups specifically identified as vulnerable (the wounded, the sick, refugees and civilians).

In this context, a series of problems emerged in which the issue of protection arose rather through that of exposure, of putting people in danger. The expatriates were aware that their presence, perceived by the displaced as providing relative safety, made the camp something of a sanctuary and was one reason why it attracted people looking for a safe haven. They were also witnesses of the discordance between the tempest of violence outside and the fragile immunity of the camp. This raised the question of what role they were playing and might be forced to play: what assurance did they have that this immunity would last? Were they, despite themselves, serving as bait in what might well prove to be a trap, endangering the lives of the displaced population as well as their own? In any event, this is how they experienced the episode: they “had long asked themselves whether they were not drawing people into a trap. On the one hand, the people think that MSF’s presence is a guarantee of safety. On the other, given the scale of the violence all around Mornay, it is to be feared that, sooner or later, armed men will attack the displaced” (Mornay logistician, interview in preparation for the RCO).

The attack they feared did not take place, and the situation around Mornay gradually stabilised. Should we try to assess what role the presence of MSF expatriates played in the fact that the trap failed to materialise?

It should be noted, first, that the purpose of the expatriates’ presence was not to protect the displaced physically.It may seem obvious to MSF members that this is not the goal, but it should be remembered that many debates and discussions are taking place on the ‘protective’ nature of presence, in the current context of producing recipes on “how to protect in practice”; the possibility of a trap is generally mentioned in passing, as one of the perverse side effects that any good solution must entail. See Pro-active presence: Field strategies for civilian protection, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2006. Quite the contrary, as soon as the team saw that its presence was perceived as ‘protective’, it worried about this. The members of the field team were probably thinking of Srebrenica and Kibeho, two episodes strongly characterised by the idea that MSF “does not protect” (i.e. does not provide physical protection). Caution was needed: for example, the RCO notes regarding this episode that it “would be foolish to believe that two volunteers in t-shirts had dissuaded the army and its proxy forces from razing the camps”  (p. 57) and that if the team played a deterrent role, it was in any event not the only factor that did so.The displaced stated that the site may have been spared because the governor of El Geneina was from Mornay (Mornay logistician, report of interview in preparation for the RCO). This does not preclude the more general observation that sometimes (often?) the presence of a third party, i.e. the expatriate, can have a dampening effect on violence.See the La Mancha agreement. Also: “In both Srebrenica and Kibeho … the idea was to have enclaves made secure by the international presence, which is not a bad idea. An idea of the camp, of sanctuary, of being watched by outside observers, which provides a minimum level of safety, which makes it more difficult to commit violence. It is an idea I have not completely abandoned, though I have put it in perspective” (interview, R. Brauman). “If only by the effect of reality, of presence, in certain situations you cannot deny the impact you have, even if it was not your objective. The effect is produced by your presence – and hence it makes you responsible” (interview, J.-H. Bradol).


Following the experience with the 15 January press release on Nyala, MSF decided to adopt a strategy of “silent diplomacy” to alert the international community to the part of the situation in Darfur that could not be mentioned in public, namely the violence and the obstacles to aid deployment: “the fear of being denied access to Darfur led to a focus on launching a campaign of silent diplomacy, while public statements would be restricted to ‘a warning that aid was insufficient … [its] aim being to call for the deployment of aid (and not to denounce the obstacle put by Khartoum)(sic)’ ” (RCO, page 112, quoting the minutes of the Executive Committee meeting of 10 February 2004).

Silent diplomacy – “Reliable” journalists were briefed by MSF members. On 9-11 February, J.-C. Cabrol, recently back from Darfur, made the diplomatic rounds at United Nations headquarters: “the briefing insisted on ‘the need for the international community to immediately assume strong political leadership to address the Darfur situation with the government of Sudan beyond the ‘humanitarian problematic’ and the specific issue of access / humanitarian corridors (violence against the civilians, etc.)’ ” (RCO, p. 111, quoting the contents of the briefing). The RCO comments: “the aim was twofold: to obtain diplomatic support for the strengthening of relief operations, and to encourage the UN and individual states to address politically the crisis, or at the very least to consider the physical protection of displaced populations as an utter priority”.

This appeal to ‘take responsibility above and beyond humanitarian aid’ is thus an appeal for political involvement that, although not explicitly a call for ‘protection’, refers in substance to the notion of protection in the sense of a reaction or response, initiatives to prevent or reduce the violence inflicted on the displaced civilians. In our view, this appeal implicitly calls for either means of physical protection (this is the interpretation given in the RCO) or the use of various means of pressure.

It is interesting to note that the content of this message – criticism of the international community’s abdication of responsibility and a call for action that is not limited to delivering or protecting humanitarian aid – strongly resembles that of MSF’s declarations in the 1990s on Bosnia, Rwanda and the hunting of Rwandan refugees. What changes is the degree to which the message is public: the MSF-F that recommended quiet diplomacy in Darfur is the same organisation that in 1997 bitterly criticised the “silent advocacy” strategy adopted by MSF-H concerning the hunting of Rwandan refugees in Zaire. A change of ‘institutional culture’ or simply a different context? Our hypothesis is that both of these factors came into play. There was a change of culture concerning public appeals for action and taking responsibility, and the context was indeed radically different: in 1997, MSF had considered it imperative to take a public stance because aid was being used as bait, but this practice was not observed in Darfur.

Public statements – Meanwhile, MSF’s public statements from February to April showed a conspicuous lack of any mention of violence in speaking of the catastrophic situation in Darfur: the press releases of 17 and 26 February did not explain why the people were “displaced”, nor the nature of the “crisis”. They simply said that these displaced people needed massive assistance if they were to survive and that assistance was cruelly lacking. How was this positioning developed? We get a glimpse of the process through the e-mails between the field, the emergency desk and top management in the week (11-17 February) prior to the 17 February press release, in which the competing arguments were expressed.

On 11 February, the Darfur team (field and coordination) expressed its satisfaction with a draft press release sent from headquarters: “I discussed it with the team and they are glad to know that something is being said, as it’s sure that they feel it cannot continue before their eyes with nothing being said” (e-mail, head of mission, 11 February, daytime). However, after some changes were made to speak more directly about the violence, they were less pleased: the press release is “much stronger in respect to the violence against the population and is again inaccurate in terms of what MSF is doing … I realise that artistic license is taken in order to make things more dramatic…” (e-mail, head of mission, 11 February, evening).

The director of operations denied having sought to be alarmist and repeated that his concern was for the mission, for the operationality and security of the field teams. The Mornay team in particular was in a highly sensitive situation, as the village of Mornay had just been cut off and surrounded by the Janjaweed: “our priority today is the team and its security and the patients we are caring for”. Thus, ‘offensive’ press releases were put on hold, although “we still have in the pipeline the intention to put out a press communiqué on what we are witnessing more globally in the field / the deteriorating situation / the absence of international response: Alert message addressed to the international actors which is our prime responsibility when we are overwhelmed: people do need much more assistance” (e-mail, director of operations, 12 February). In the end, as the tension eased at Mornay after the departure of the Janjaweed, he spoke of re-issuing an alert (as opposed to an accusatory press release – e-mail, evening of the same day). The coordination team was concerned about the Sudanese authorities’ reaction and wanted to submit the press release to them in advance. The emergency coordinator reported that the Mornay team “saw no impact” (other than negative) that such a communiqué could have at the time. “We are not questioning the content of this press release, but only its timing” (e-mail, emergency coordinator, 13 February).

The communication director took a strong line in response to these messages: “if the team feels they are in danger … and unwilling to take the risk of this minimalist communiqué [insufficient relief supplies and lack of access], they may have to be evacuated … we don’t wait for the authorities’ permission to speak out!! … we’re losing our common sense why we try to make sure every word will be acceptable to the authorities.… we’ve done three press releases so far this year. Is this our conception of MSF’s role in crises such as Darfur, Uganda and Chechnya?” (e-mail, communication director, Sunday 15 February; this e-mail reviews all the decision-making problems).

At this stage, MSF-B and MSF-H, which thought it best to issue strong statements on the lack of access, informed Paris that they would no longer support its position (“we are the only ones ++ who don’t want to speak out on the lack of access”, wrote the communication director).

The President entered the debate on 16 February to stress the importance of prioritising the messages we’re trying to get across; we need first to sound the alarm on the insufficiency of relief supplies, and only afterward to speak of the causes, not vice versa: “there is a difference between a statement in which the starting point is a warning of aid insufficiency and one that begins by criticising the authorities”. He emphasised that the international community (including some NGOs) was partly responsible for the silence surrounding the Darfur crisis, its attention being focused on the peace process in South Sudan. Lastly, he reminded those concerned that although debate over a press release was possible, it was up to the directors (not the field) to take a decision at some point.

In the end, the press release issued on 17 February contained no denunciation of the authorities’ obstruction of access, and still less of the violence: “we did not mention anything referring to violence against civilians. I would remind you that the situations in the field, and with the Sudanese authorities, are still very tense. I would also remind you that in 1989, an airplane carrying four passengers was shot down …” (e-mail, communication officer, accompanying the final press release). It simply says, “donors are still not providing enough aid, and access to the region is too limited to deliver decent assistance to the displaced people of Darfur”.

This excerpt shows positions which were mixtures of spontaneous reactions and reasoned principles, that used different levels of argument.

First, it should be noted that there is no case in which it is possible to draw a sharp line between a ‘field’ position (characterised, for example, by overcautiousness) and a ‘headquarters’ position (in favour of a strong public stance). In fact, according to the report of the coordination team, field personnel were favourable to public statements mentioning the violence. What emerges from the e-mail of 11 February, with its indeterminate formulation of both the problem (“it”) and the response (“something”), is the idea of an impulse to take action arising from being an eyewitness (“before their eyes”). The forces driving that impulse seem to have been operational frustration (insufficient capacity to meet people’s needs) and the more general impotence of MSF (no hold on a situation that was steadily deteriorating under pressure of violence).See the case study The Hunting and Killing of Rwandan Refugees in Zaire, where we first observed this. In short, speaking out on the violence seemed all the more necessary to field personnel because they thought their operation was not accomplishing enough. Headquarters commented, “Our teams are losing patience with the red tape hampering deployment of relief supplies at a time when the violence is steadily increasing. Our operation is very small compared to what is needed, and the field team finds this hard to bear” (Board meeting, February 2004). The coordination team’s about-face after the changes made to the press release does not necessarily represent the position of the Mornay team (though the latter was admittedly worried about the timing of the release because the security situation was becoming increasingly tense). The team said afterwards that it had been disappointed by the final form of the press release, considering it to have been watered down, and confirmed that it would have preferred that the violence be mentioned (interview, Mornay logistician).

Subsequently, the differences of position were rooted in the respective importance given on the one hand to the risks to the safety of the team and operationality (access) and, on the other, to the necessity of mentioning the sensitive subjects of obstructed access and violence:

  • Arguments in favour of speaking out on the violence and obstruction of access explicitly mentioned the “role” of MSF, alluding to the idea that the organisation has a role of ‘bearing witness’ against such serious violence. In so doing, they put forward a certain conception of MSF by placing the argument on the grounds of organisation’s identity – and hence of the imperative. It was the comparison between the imperative arising from the seriousness of the situation (speaking out as a protective action) and the constraint related to operationality (keeping silent to protect MSF’s action) which underpinned the arguments in favour of mentioning acts of violence and obstruction: when weighed against this imperative, the risks to safety and operationality were regarded as minimal. Moreover, this school of thought, based on its evaluation of the power relationship, considered it necessary to force access to the area and thwart the Sudanese authorities, who were toying with MSF (MSF-B and MSF-H had 20 expatriates stuck in Khartoum). Lastly, it pointed out the risks of misappropriation if MSF’s communication failed to mention these obstacles: the risk of serving both the Sudanese government’s propaganda on free access to Darfur and the international community’s desire to ignore the conflict in order to protect the image of the North-South peace process; and the risk of unduly focusing responsibility for the situation on ‘defective’ humanitarian organisations.
  • Arguments for public communication concentrating on the insufficiency of the relief effort were based either on a different order of priorities or a different evaluation of the risks. Some thought that the priority message to get across was the urgent need for donor mobilisation in order to cope with a worsening situation (hoping that in the meantime the obstacles to access would be lifted, but without trying to force access at the risk of losing it entirely). Others saw serious risks to security and operationality (fear of stronger impediments on the arrival of staff and on exploration, especially expulsion; fear of retaliatory measures against the aid workers and reference to the grave incident of 1989).In her presentation to the Board of Directors meeting of 27 February 2004, the deputy programme manager of the emergency desk noted that “public statements are closely monitored, since even the use of the word ‘violence’ in public causes serious tension”. During the debate, two people spoke of the need for intensive communication on the difficulties of providing assistance (citing an example, Meiram, where “everything opened up” after media coverage of the crisis). The deputy programme manager replied by mentioning the government’s threats following the press release of 15 January and the fact that MSF was already “privileged” because it did obtain a few grudging authorisations, and the debate ended there.In both cases, the arguments were based on the  pragmatic grounds of need. This positioning stemmed partly from what might be called a ‘relief worker’ conception of MSF’s primary role (not explicitly set out here), quite different from the ‘witness’ conception described above, and partly from a real fear of venturing onto the delicate terrain of obstruction and violence, which would endanger what access MSF had (if not for this fear, the relief worker role would have fully justified unvarnished denunciation of the obstacles). From this viewpoint, a test of strength with the authorities was to be avoided (this is why some mentioned the grave incident of 1989, as the death of volunteers served as an unanswerable argument), and the risks of misappropriation mentioned by the opposed position were considered to be secondary.

In the end, “the decision to refrain from public comment on the violence and the drastic restraints imposed on aid” won out, as “the result of a calculated trade-off”.RCO, page 112. This was indeed what was indicated by the tone of the President’s annual report a few months later: “Darfur was also, and rightly, a situation for which we paid special attention to the messages we put out. On the whole, I find this media campaign to have been a success. We made a significant contribution to making the world aware of the scale of the catastrophe and the inadequacy of the relief effort” (J.-H. Bradol, AR 2003-04, May 2004). Speaking in terms of trade-off has the advantage of showing that the action actually taken resulted in each case from a calculation in which the opposing factors were put into the balance. The positioning on the violence was an integral part of this assessment of what was most beneficial and least risky for the MSF teams and its target groups in various respects – the groups that were accessible and receiving assistance, groups that were not accessible, immediate basic needs, vulnerability to violence. The choice was between keeping a low profile to preserve even a limited presence and operationality, hoping that the restrictions on access to the area would be lifted, or denouncing the violence and obstruction in order to force access to the area, at the risk of being hampered still further. “Our overriding concern was the continuation of our activities”, noted the RCO (p.113).

Here we can return to and extend the observation made above concerning MSF-F’s change of position on public declarations between the hunting of Rwandan refugees and early 2004 in Darfur. In the former situation, it was precisely the importance given to maintaining field presence, which had become the main criterion of judgement and action, that led MSF-France to criticise the other sections on two grounds – criticism of silent advocacy as an ineffective strategy against targeted, deliberate acts of violence, and criticism of silence as an untenable stance given the seriousness of the situation and the insignificance of humanitarian action in such a context. Thus, there has certainly been a change of ‘practical culture’ at MSF-F, above and beyond the differences between the two contexts, to the point where today it is more complicated for MSF to issue public denunciatory statements.

This reversal of position was not a complete about-face, however. Although MSF-F opted in early 2004 for silence concerning the violence and obstruction of access in Darfur, and although this decision was accepted at the time, it has been strongly qualified in retrospect.It may reasonably be thought that the remark from the 2004-2005 President’s annual report quoted above (saying that it was “necessary that the seriousness of the crisis be known to the public”), which refers to the silence in late 2003, also refers to early 2004. The RCO notes, for example, that “the balance between the risk of expulsion and the benefits of relief activities was not clearly weighted” in favour of this choice. The RCO therefore raises the question of how long MSF would have maintained this strategy of silence, suggesting that this deliberate masking of the causes would soon have seemed untenable to many MSF members, given the seriousness of the situation (the degree of violence, the extent of it consequences in terms of needs and the severity of the obstacles impeding the response to these needs), and that the strategy would also have proven to be misconceived, as it was recognised that only media coverage of the crisis could put Darfur on the diplomatic agenda.




The months of March and April brought a gradual easing of the tension. Although the situation on the ground was still highly volatile, it entered a period of relative calm, as the campaign of destruction around Mornay had come to an end (only to move elsewhere, apparently); the Zalingei and Niertiti projects were expanding. The main issue was clearly vulnerability on a day-to-day basis, which amply justified continuing our urgent calls for increased aid.

In early March,  issuing yet another alert message on the situation of the displaced persons in   the camps, MSF allowed itself to refer obliquely to the violence, as background or general context: the displaced fled the “attacks on their villages”; “as the violence and insecurity persist and the international response remains far below what is needed…, MSF calls on the international donor community to increase its support quickly and massively”; “a conflict has begun…” (press release of 10 March on the alarming nutritional situation; emphasis added). Another diplomatic round was undertaken in the United States to issue a warning that it was urgent to increase humanitarian relief, and hence to put pressure on the Sudanese government    to allow the deployment of this relief (there was no question, even implicitly, of calling on the international community to ‘shoulder its responsibilities’ by intervening directly).Interview, Mornay logistician, February 2007. See also the RCO.

The denunciation of violence against civilians gradually emerged in the public arena through the resounding declarations of a UN representative on 19 March, suggesting that “genocide” was under way in Darfur. Then began an intensive lobbying campaign by various groups calling for armed intervention on the grounds of the “responsibility to protect” civilians against genocide and crimes against humanity, at the very moment when the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide was being commemorated. This pressure seems to have contributed to place Darfur on the agenda of the Western diplomatic corps, which in turn put pressure on Khartoum. A cease-fire was signed on 8 April, and Khartoum agreed to the deployment of the African Union troops assigned to ensure that it was observed. A month later, on 21 May, the restrictions on access to Darfur were lifted.

This period saw a shift in MSF’s positioning, leading it simultaneously to denounce the past and current violence openly, to continue its calls for more aid and to contest in public the use of the term “genocide”. Although these communication activities were intertwined and conducted simultaneously, for clarity’s sake we will describe each of them separately, in order to identify their connection with the issues of protection and violence.



It was thus when access was restored and the international community was mobilising against the “genocide” that MSF allowed itself to take a more outspoken stance against the violence.

And to present itself as a organisation providing care for the victims of this violence. In this respect, it is interesting to note the change in the description of MSF at the end of each press release, from January to July 2004: at the outset, MSF “provides aid”, “does medical consultations” in “support of the displaced” (February and March press releases); later on, the “wounded” are mentioned (April); and lastly, MSF is described as providing care to “the victims of violence and malnourished children…” (press release of 21 June) and “MSF has been helping the victims of violence in Darfur since December 2003” (press release 26 July)

Epicentre had begun documenting acts of violence in March. At the request of MSF, Epicentre undertook a retrospective mortality survey in addition to its other activities of collecting epidemiological data; the aim was to obtain an “epidemiology of violence” for an entire area, so as to be able to describe the exact consequences, in terms of mortality, of the peaks in the policy of destruction conducted by the militias and the government. The report, finalised in June, established that one person in 20 had been killed in attacks on 111 villages (September 2003-February 2004). It also described the current causes of death, mentioning violence, hunger and disease.

At the same time, the alert messages and denunciation intensified. MSF spoke before the UN Security Council on 24 May: in a speech entitled “The humanitarian situation in Darfur”, T. Koene described the consequences of the violence for the population, the obstacles to aid delivery and the insufficiency of international aid, painting a picture of a population caught in a trap and wholly dependent on humanitarian aid for its survival. In early June, J.-H. Bradol, president of MSF-F, visited Khartoum and Darfur. He met a number of Western diplomats and Sudanese officials, to whom he expressed his concern over the scale of the past violence (“I had a whole stack of pictures of burnt villages on my computer; I spent a week doing that with Greg Elder [head of mission] in Khartoum” – interview) and the persistence of violence in the present, in areas around the camps in particular. He pointed to the large number of raped women being treated in MSF clinics, as a continuation of the work being done on the ground. In Mornay, for example, the field teams were referring victims of sexual violence to the BBC and helping to find interpreters so that interviews could be recorded. On this practice, Bradol noted: “We see here, in a concrete situation, all the ambiguities facing an organisation that is not responsible for protection, that claims no expertise, mandate or responsibility in the matter, and is nevertheless doing this” (interview).

The Epicentre report was made public on 21 June, along with a press release entitled “The worst is yet to come”, which, in addition to speaking of past massacres, emphasised the current vulnerability of the people due to the persistence of the danger: “the militias that attacked the villages now control the outskirts of the camp, in effect imprisoning the IDPs, who are constantly afraid; if they leave the camp, the men may be killed, while women have been beaten and raped when they ventured out to forage for food and other basic necessities”. All of J.-H. Bradol’s appointments were cancelled and the head of mission was threatened with expulsion, but this public statement seems to have induced the French diplomatic apparatus to firmly take up the question, and given rise to a debate on the Sudanese side: “I gave Epicentre’s report to a general in the Sudanese army for distribution to professors of medicine; we were doing advocacy, so to say. That led to a meeting between the minister of humanitarian affairs and his staff” (interview). “…I think that disseminating [this information] helped to obtain much greater resources” (AR 2004-2005).The full passage reads: “We found … when the Sudanese authorities at last agreed to let in the relief organisations, a population greatly weakened by the massacres and the relief effort lagging far behind what was required. We wanted to make this public. The Sudanese government was not pleased when, in June, we disseminated this information. But I think that disseminating it helped to obtain much greater resources” (AR 2004-2005).

Thus, whereas the possibility of becoming involved in a trial of strength with the authorities emerged, the fact that violence was mentioned was not perceived as taking a risk with no benefits in return; rather, it became (almost ‘naturally’, in hindsight) one part of the detailed description that MSF would give to alert the world to the disastrous situation in Darfur.Public statements “[serve] to call for a stepped-up relief effort. We do not see that we have a responsibility to be, in this mission, a kind of observer of human rights violations. However, we have a clear responsibility where relief is concerned, and this responsibility can be exercised if the nature of the events affecting the population is well understood and well disseminated to the public. In this case, the population had been subject to massacres” (AR 2004-2005, concerning June 2004).


As described above, there was widespread talk about a “genocide” in Darfur as from March 2004.
This section is largely based on the facts and analyses presented in the RCO, pp. 30-32 and 114-123. The accusations came from a great variety of organisations and were reported in major media. In their view, the region was the target of an extermination policy and close to becoming another Rwanda, and hence aid delivery had inevitably become insignificant and pointless. On 6 April, the New York Times reported (based on the testimony of an MSF member): “in effect, Mr Gluck said, the aid effort is sustaining victims so that they can be killed with a full belly”. In mid-May, Darfur became widely accessible, largely thanks to the pressure exerted on the Sudanese regime. The humanitarian agencies rushed in. The media campaign continued intensively, with reports from human rights NGOs, an appeal to US President Bush in June to “stop the genocide in Darfur”, a flurry of diplomatic activity (in July, several Western countries said they were willing to provide troops for an intervention force, and the African Union had just sent in observers). On 1 August, the UN Security Council passed a resolution imposing an embargo on arms for the rebels and the Janjaweed, and the disarming of the latter. In mid-August, the first AU troops were deployed. Despite these developments and the relative lull in the violence, further calls were issued to “protect civilians” and not to hide behind “national sovereignty” (Kofi Annan, 21 September).

From the outset, MSF’s position (which in the case of the French section was made public) was at odds with this discourse. As early as 16 April, the deputy programme manager of the emergency desk, when asked in a TV interview whether the talk of genocide was justified, answered “not at all”, which did not fail to please the Sudanese government. In July, two public statements were issued (by J.-H. Bradol and T. Allafort) that also objected to this term. An opinion column was also published in Le Monde in September.

What was this difference of position based on, and how does it concern the issue of protection for MSF? Without going into detail on the intense internal debates over the very concept of genocide and whether it was appropriate to take a public position on whether it applied to Darfur (a debate whose ramifications continue today), we will try to highlight how this episode calls into question the way MSF relates to its conception of its role concerning violence.

The description of what was happening – To begin with, MSF objected to the way the situation was described, i.e. to calling it genocide. This objection was based on empirical arguments: what we were seeing on the ground was not the same as in Rwanda; it was a very violent counter-insurgency campaign, but in which an intention to eliminate the people and a policy of extermination were not observed – and where, in contrast, tens of thousands of people were in danger of death by attrition, which justified increasing aid.

Genocide versus the possibility of assistance – Above and beyond the specific diagnosis of the situation, MSF’s positioning was based on the idea that genocide and assistance were incompatible ‘in principle’. The reference to the second world war, like the appeal “you can’t stop genocide with doctors” in 1994, founded the notion that genocide, as an extreme case, makes assistance either derisory (from a practical point of view) or indecent (from a ‘moral’ point of view): the absurd situation of the victim killed “with a full belly”.Killed with a full belly” is a direct allusion to the expression “well-fed dead”, used to highlight the pathetic nature of the “humanitarian alibi” in the 1990s, particularly in Sarajevo. In short, in a situation of genocide, the first imperative of protection (that the genocide stop) was viewed as taking precedence over everything else, eliminating the very possibility that assistance could carry any weight in the assessment of appropriate responses. Since that time, to be sure, this idea has been strongly qualified internally. Several people at MSF today contest the idea that genocide would deprive assistance of all meaning and/or make it impossible to find niches in which to operate. “If we look at the founding myth of modern humanitarian aid [Biafra], we see that denunciation of genocide and continuing to operate can despite everything be reconciled… At the level of principles, this shows at least that things had not arrived so solidly at the stage where they are today: genocide – withdrawal – protest”, notes R. Brauman (interview). It seems to us, however, that this sequence remains strongly ingrained and has influenced the positioning of MSF as an institution. It was indeed because MSF feared that the label of genocide would have obscured the need for increased aid that the organisation considered it necessary to distance itself publicly from this designation in the spring of 2004.
There are other quotations referring to this sequence, either internally (consequences for our activity) or externally (which messages to send outside MSF). An example is the president’s reply to a Board member who wanted an explicit statement of the reasons for this public positioning: “accurate designation of the nature of the events is vital to an appropriate response. The first consequence of designating these events as genocide would have been to organise the departure of our personnel and the flight of the target population” (Board of Directors meeting, 3 September 2004). Another example shows the perceived necessity of explaining the reasons for a ‘change of course’ that would have seemed incongruous to those who remembered the appeal of 1994: “given the [past] public stance of MSF, it would have been odd for MSF, if the designation of genocide had prevailed, to continue operating as if nothing were happening (see Rwanda precedents)” (interview, R. Brauman). This fear had some basis: commenting on the lifting of restrictions on access, the RCO remarks that “aid operations, however, were still proceeding very slowly. The UN lacked funds and the NGOs arriving in Darfur were more concerned about ‘genocide’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the deployment of international forces than about the provision of vital aid to the 1.2 million displaced people who were now accessible but still succumbing to malnutrition and diarrhea, the principal cause of death at that time” (p. 32).

The spectre of armed intervention to “protect civilians” MSF’s adherence to the idea of a qualitative shift leading to an operational shift (putting assistance second, priority to protection, call for intervention) entailed a second possible consequence of speaking of genocide, namely armed intervention – or the spectre of such intervention – which was perceived precisely as the  objective of those who chose to use the word: “using the term ‘genocide’ allows the proponents of this view to wave the threat of armed intervention at Khartoum” (Board of Directors meeting, 3 September 2004). MSF saw a need to indicate publicly its disagreement with this view, for both internal and external reasons: first, because it had explicitly distanced itself from any “call to arms” after a critical review of its history (“you know that we are now very reserved about taking public positions on international military interventions”, J.-H. Bradol, AR 2004-2005, on Darfur)The arguments on which this distance is based are formalised in Fabrice Weissman’s article “Humanitarian Action and The Temptation of the Call to Arms”, 2003 (available at www.msf.fr).; second, because the spectre of intervention caused the Sudanese regime to adopt a much harder line towards those who waved it – NGOs or the international community – and to call them “crusaders” and “enemies”.

Assessment of the consequences MSF’s public stance thus stemmed directly from its assessment of the possible consequences of speaking of genocide in Darfur, and for this reason, it was important not to leave the discourse on genocide unanswered. It should be noted that, in trying to avoid the consequences of this discourse, MSF did not take its positive effects into account, and that in hindsight, a majority of observers acknowledge that the campaign against the genocide, by putting pressure on the Sudanese regime, had the effect of removing obstacles to access by the relief organisations, at least at the outset. The negative consequences of MSF’s own positioning – in this case, that it was taken up by Khartoum – were also relegated to the background: at the time, the most important thing was to put forward its own reading of the situation, because the operational issue was the emphasis on delivering relief. The choice here boiled down to an assessment of which form of appropriation was more embarrassing (being taken on board by those advocating intervention or by the Sudanese regime). However, denunciation of the violence was regarded as aimed at reducing the risk of such appropriation: “that was why, in order to have a balanced position, we took such an offensive stance towards the Sudanese government” (Board of Directors meeting, 3 September 2004).


MSF’s outspokenness about the violence and the rejection of the term ‘genocide’ in May and June 2004 should thus be understood in relation to what MSF had been saying from the outset, namely that more aid was needed: past violence (which caused the displacement of the population) and present violence (which was the cause of its confinement) combined to reduce the displaced to near-total vulnerability and dependence on aid, which tended to be obscured when the debate focused on “genocide”.Before the spring of 2004 and the emergence of this debate over genocide, the violence and the need for humanitarian aid were kept dark owing to the international community’s reluctance to recognise the existence of a conflict (because of the ongoing North-South peace process). From this standpoint, providing the aid required in sufficient quantity was considered the priority, because the main threats to the lives of the displaced people came from disease (diarrhoeal diseases were “already responsible for more than one-third of the deaths in the camps”) and malnutrition: “in their current state, [the relief operations] will not be able to avert the loss of tens of thousands of lives to a famine deliberately caused by human beings” (last sentence of the press release “The worst is yet to come”). The press release of 26 July reiterated this message, emphasising that not enough food was being distributed.  Might one then say that, in the view of MSF, assisting people is equivalent to “protecting” them? This formulation, which attributes to MSF a vocabulary that in fact it does not use, is aimed at seeing how the emphasis on assistance is linked to a more general concern for the vulnerability of the displaced. Several remarks are in order:

Underlying the positioning on relief is an assessment of ‘threats’ – As we saw in the case of the debate over genocide, the arguments of MSF shifted the centre of gravity from which the situation is gauged. Instead of the normative discourse on the necessity of providing protection, it adopted the discourse of a field practitioner. In so doing, it admittedly took a ‘relief worker’ stance. But the reason for its insistence on the need for aid was not that aid is its ‘stock in trade’, but that MSF saw a paradoxical situation in which it was in the name of protection against genocide that the greatest number of people would be likely to die (through attrition)The advocates of accusations of genocide rather quickly appropriated both terms of this opposition by speaking of “genocide by attrition”, suggesting a deliberate purpose not observed by MSF. To sum up, MSF never thought for a moment and never said that assisting people means protecting them, that aid is a means of achieving the objective of protection, or that assistance should take precedence over protection, or vice versa: MSF deliberately avoided this type of formulation, which the multiple meanings of the word “protection” can only make confusing.Note the difference from the stance of humanitarian NGOs that had embraced protection as their first concern, for whom protection is the objective that directs and determines relief operations and presence, as in Pro-active presence, op. cit. But its operational and public positioning was based on an assessment of which threats pose the greatest risk to lives: the question of relief operations was inevitably mingled with those of the security or vulnerability of the population groups considered. In this sense, we may assert that, without ever referring explicitly to it, MSF adopted a conception that is fairly close to that of international humanitarian law, in which besides abstention from violence by the parties to the conflict, the protection of civilian populations includes the delivery and free passage of appropriate relief supplies.

In the conception of assistance, considerations relating to exposing civilians to violence

MSF’s concern about exposing people to violence is built into its very way of conceiving and implementing relief operations: for example, as early as February in Mornay, in a full-blown emergency situation, the team worried about the vulnerability of the displaced people to the attacks of the Janjaweed surrounding the wadi; although providing the people with water was the leading objective, doing so in a place that exposed them as little as possible to the attacks was explicitly taken into consideration by the team: “there were two objectives: giving water to the people and getting them out of the wadi”; “there was something considered, decided [about getting the people away from the wadi, which was a dangerous location]” (interview, Mornay logistician). The RCO points out that “the teams … helped the displaced persons to avoid certain forms of violence. By providing water and thus making it unnecessary for women and children to collect it from the river… MSF-F did in a sense ‘protect’ some displaced persons”. This passage tells us that protection in the RCO is somehow expressed in negative terms, through the avoidance of exposure to certain acts of violence; and that even in this restricted sense, it is not taken as an objective. This way of viewing protection issues is illustrated very clearly by the subtitles of the section in which they are discussed: “Did we expose populations to additional violence?” and “Exposure and protection effects” (RCO, p. 57) instead of, for example, “Have we succeeded in protecting civilians from violence?” or “Have we moved civilians away from violence?”. It puts the emphasis squarely on concern for avoiding the negative impact that relief activity might have on people’s security; the potential positive impact is not sought directly, but may be observed.

After the passage on water delivery having helped to move the displaced away from certain acts of violence, the RCO nevertheless remarks in a footnote: “Sadly, MSF lacked the resources to distribute fodder, reeds and firewood. Women and children who went into the bush to collect these materials were exposed to the same kind of violence” (p.57). The team explicitly considered whether they should provide animal fodder as early as February; this idea was not followed up, the reasons given being the lack of resources and difficulty of implementation (interview, Mornay logistician). It is easily understandable that the successive teams, which were overwhelmed with work, did not give priority to this activity. Another reason was probably that this activity had no relation to MSF’s ‘core’ activity (medical assistance). As providing fodder was not an accustomed and ‘legitimate’ operational area of MSF, it may have seemed beside the point to allocate resources specifically for this purpose. In fact, other reasons were mentioned later on: exposure of MSF staff, as having them use the roads to find thatch would have placed them in danger, and the fact that we “are not a protection agency” (ibid.). The issue here is that, in contrast to providing water, which meets a basic need, such an activity would have been motivated first and foremost by the goal of shielding people from violence – a mindset not adopted by MSF.

Concerning the dangers on the outskirts of the camps, it was not MSF but another organisation that called for patrols by the AU forces to reduce the risk of violence against women around the Niertiti camp (“firewood patrols”). Nor did MSF take a position later on, when these patrols were stopped because the AU did not wish to take sole responsibility for them. It seems to us, here again, that MSF refrained from taking a position due to its distance with “protective actions” designated as such.Interviews with the former Niertiti field coordinator and former Darfur head of mission. MSF provides care and deploys relief supplies, and in so doing worries about their impact on the population, but keeps its distance from actions whose explicit objective is protection. In this respect, it would be interesting to ask when and under what conditions this distance lessens or disappears entirely; in other words, in what situations does MSF consider or has considered it appropriate to call on other stakeholders to intervene upstream from the medical problems that MSF deals with.

The camp as sanctuary? – The above description of how the displaced are most exposed when they leave the camp to fetch water or wood projects an image of the camp as a ‘sanctuary’, as a ‘protected place’ offering shelter from the threats outside. This image needs to be put in perspective. The camps were also described as places of violence, as “open air prisons”, and some observers report a real lack of security inside: “I have problems with the statement that because we give aid we give security.… Mornay was … a place of violence… Today in Zalingei the men are being hunted by the soldiers inside the camps, no need to go outside to the wadi” (interview, Darfur head of mission). This insecurity was, to be sure, masked by the greater dangers lurking all around these camps. Other observers contest this description, maintaining the idea of the camp as a sanctuary in which aid can be deployedSee the debates held as part of the “Responsables d’opérations” [Operations managers] training session, January 2007. The two viewpoints would probably agree, however, that providing assistance in the camps makes it possible to keep people in a place of lesser danger. This idea of relative safety seems to have played some role in MSF’s positioning in May 2006 when the World Food Programme announced that its food rations would be reduced for lack of funding. Although the press release of 22 May stresses the threat of a nutritional disaster, the prior discussions over its content invoked the argument of choice: reducing food aid in the camps would mean depriving the displaced of the choice of remaining in the camps, forcing them to go outside and thus to expose themselves to greater dangers. Although assistance and protection are never equated, in thought or in writing, it can clearly be seen here how the issue of providing aid is combined with that of exposure to violence.



As from the summer of 2004, with the intensification of the relief effort (to which MSF’s alerts had contributed), the situation of the displaced stabilised to some degree. In early September, it was observed that “we are no longer afraid that there will be a famine”Minutes of the Board of Directors meeting, 3 September 2004. , thanks to the distribution of food aid. This enabled MSF to consider repositioning, reducing its deployment on some sites to have the capacity to explore other areas and give more attention to activities that had been relatively neglected to that point (“caring for rape victims, surgery”). Its concerns shifted: “we are now worried about the relocations”.


The relocations were not a new discovery. Already mentioned by various teams which had heard rumours of such operations (see sitrep Mornay for early June, not to mention Nyala, where relocations were actually carried out in January), they appeared on the MSF website in June, and subsequently in the press release of 26 July: “we are very concerned by reports that the displaced people have been taken back from the camps to their villages… Many people are very afraid”. During the summer, when it was subject to international pressure and references to “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing”, the Sudanese government responded by promoting the return of the displaced. As this was the converse of an “ethnic cleansing” policy, it was supported by the United Nations: OCHA “increasingly encouraged [the NGOs] to redeploy their programmes and activities to these areas [relocation areas]”. The government was spreading information about a “spontaneous return” of the displaced to their villages; the Zalingei team observed that the people were moved from the informal camps to others outside the town, apparently as a prelude to actually returning to their villages. In El Geneina, the government officially requested the NGOs to undertake activities encouraging the return of the displaced.General sitrep Darfur, 23 August 2004.This situation continued throughout 2005. For example, a workshop was organised in early March 2005 so that the government could present its “plan” on the return of the displaced,General sitrep Darfur, February-March 2005: “Other NGOs are already committing themselves to much the same sort of plan, denying the pull impact of their strategy and generally presenting their positioning as an attempt to help those who have already returned”.General sitrep Darfur, February-March 2005: “Other NGOs are already committing themselves to much the same sort of plan, denying the pull impact of their strategy and generally presenting their positioning as an attempt to help those who have already returned”. and several meetings with their leaders were organised, but the number of people who actually returned home remained low. Although MSF was not opposed in principle to the return of the displaced, it remained on the sidelines of the discussions and initiatives on this issue. However, it repeatedly expressed its anxiety: that of seeing the people sent back to places where the danger was greater, where the means of subsistence were not assured, and that of losing access to those we were assisting, i.e. to those who had in some sense entered our sphere of responsibility.

Thus, MSF once again took a position distinct from those of most of the aid agencies, which although they shared MSF’s concerns showed an increasing tendency to promote the return of the displaced. As in the above-described debate over the use of the term “genocide”, the difference of stance arose from different readings of the same situation. Where the international community spoke of an overall policy to redraw the map of Darfur by driving out and confining its “African” population, and called for intervention to put a stop to this, MSF did not observe a clear desire on the part of the government to put people in camps (it wanted instead to get them out). Although the camps were often called “open air prisons” by various MSF members, they were nevertheless safer than the villages and made it possible to assist a large number of people. In short, they were still the least bad solution in the given situation.

It should be noted that before adopting this position, MSF did consider the question of ethnic cleansing and its responsibility in this regard. Three-quarters of the short section of the RCO entitled “Did we expose populations to additional violence?” are devoted to the question of “MSF’s participation in an ‘ethnic cleansing’ policy” (pp. 57-60). The question was thus raised and debated; the central argument was over the role played by MSF (bait for further violence or support provided after acts of violence that we had neither caused nor encouraged?); and the conclusion reached was that MSF stood by the choice of working in the camps.


From its beginnings in the spring of 2004, the idea of international armed intervention to “protect civilians” has steadily grown and branched out. The milestones in the development of this idea are the moments of increased pressure, of votes at the UN, of the deployment of AU soldiers, of promises to deploy blue helmets, etc. Meanwhile, the arguments used to call for intervention varied, from “genocide”, still on the agenda for some in 2007, to “ethnic cleansing”, rape and insecurity (of the humanitarian workers in particular).

We will consider here the connections between the international debate over calls for intervention, the security issue and the positioning of MSF in response. We will begin by reviewing a few key moments.

The UN Security Council adopted a first resolution on 1 August 2004 calling on the Sudanese government to disarm the militias and restore security; the first African Union soldiers were sent in shortly afterwards. During the month of August, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations organised meetings with the NGOs on whether it was appropriate to send a peacekeeping force to Darfur. MSF did not participate, but several NGOs joined the debate and openly declared themselves in favour of armed intervention.

In early 2005, the Security Council passed a resolution referring the situation in Darfur to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and decided to increase the AU contingent.

Under increased pressure, the Sudanese government tried to mark a few points before it was completely paralysed; the result was intensification of the fighting and government pressure on both the rebels and the displaced. The team noted that, generally speaking, “security has been greatly at stake in recent times” (general sitrep, March-April 2005).

In early 2006, the field teams observed a further “deterioration” in security due to an increase in scattered fighting and increased pressure for international intervention to “provide security”: “this gesticulation is more meant to put pressure on the [Sudanese government], but at the same time, it is a risk factor for us khawadja [foreigners]” (general sitrep Darfur, mid- January 2006). Jan Pronk, Kofi Annan’s representative for Sudan, recommended “a UN force large and mobile enough to provide security throughout Darfur”. In March 2006, the HCR announced that it was reducing its operations in Darfur by half owing to security problems. On 5 May, the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed under the aegis (somewhat forced) of the international community. Insecurity “increased” further because the agreement was contested by the rebel groups excluded from it and by the majority of the displaced: “I don’t want to sound UN, but we really have increased insecurity in West Darfur” (MSF Darfur security update, 28 May 2006). In July 2006, the violence against aid workers became considerably more serious – crime, racketeering, physical violence, rape and murder all intensified. As many humanitarian workers were killed during these few weeks as in the preceding two years of the conflict, and “protection of humanitarian personnel” became a leading issue on the agenda. In late August, Jan Egeland declared that an “unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur” was to be feared if the security of aid workers was not ensured, and the Security Council authorised the deployment of a UN force of 17,300 soldiers. In mid-September, the MSF team in Zalingei suffered a very serious attack on a road.It should be noted that the teams’ repeated observations of a deterioration in the situation were often based on very short-term comparisons, as the turnover rate for expatriates was very high. Their experience of past situations often covered only a few months, making it particularly difficult to assess the security situation, just as it was difficult to learn much about the areas where MSF did not have a presence. See the February 2007 debriefing of the head of mission who covered the December 2006-January 2007 period: she pointed out that the deterioration in security everyone was talking about was in fact very difficult to assess and verify, and she questioned the idea that this had occurred since the signing of the peace agreement, mentioning that incidents had been occurring since 2005. The programme manager (in post since mid-2006) replied that the number of incidents had nevertheless increased in the previous six months; and in turn, the head of mission Darfur from September 2005 to June 2006 replied to this by stating that security began to deteriorate in August 2005. Without wishing to deny the existence of such incidents and their increasingly serious nature (the team no longer goes to certain places where they could move around freely in 2004; incidents are aimed directly at us), this example warns us to be cautious about the idea of learning the whole truth about the events.


The debate over insecurity continued in 2007. For example, in May 2007 France’s new foreign affairs minister, Bernard Kouchner, spoke of the possibility of creating humanitarian corridors, and on 31 July, the Security Council adopted a resolution providing for the creation of a hybrid UN-AU force of as many as 26,000 soldiers.


The year 2006 saw a long series of security incidents, declarations calling for the protection of civilians and aid workers, and actions to increase security (from escorts provided by the UN to arrests by the AU), while MSF took a different course, emphasising its neutrality and impartiality in its public statements, and continuing to diversify its contacts and target groups  (efforts to help nomads in particular, which began in 2005). The reason was that in MSF’s view, what was compromising the security of aid workers was precisely their involvement in the political sphere through their defence of the peace agreement and talk about “protection”.

MSF’s thinking on these issues was given formal expression in October 2006 with the publication of a position paper by Fabrice Weissman, followed by an opinion column in the newspaper Le Monde (30 October), criticising the duplicity of the international community: “the international community is under-funding essential aid programmes and issuing solemn calls for the deployment of blue helmets. In so doing, it runs the risk of spreading false promises of protection and exposing humanitarian workers to the reprisals of Khartoum. The under-funding of relief operations condemns the displaced to live in increasingly deplorable conditions, exposing them to an increased risk of mortality… thus, despite its doubts, the international community is still leading the people of Darfur to believe that their salvation will come from a UN military intervention, even though the chances that such a force will be deployed and will succeed are currently very slim” (position paper, p. 7). Although the arguments are different, this debate resembles that over “genocide”, in which different interpretations of the same situation conflicted. We will build on the remarks made above, while trying to explain some of the reasons why MSF distanced itself from the debate over and actions relating to “protection”.

Discourse on protection and false promises – Insufficient, inappropriate aid and insecurity were perceived as the two less-than-admirable components of a ‘protection’ policy that was in fact a ‘false promises of protection’ policy. MSF’s first concern was to criticise this duplicity as a source of illusions and radicalisation.MSF saw the international community’s failure to respond to “appeals to protect civilians” not as a blip or delay in implementation but rather as proof of this duplicity. The debate over protection was the “humanitarian alibi” new- clothed, but with still greater complexity: instead of ‘donating rice’, the countries of the divided ‘international community’ gave public opinion (and the victims) some talk about protection to chew on: a more moving, ambitious discourse than that used in humanitarian affairs in the 1990s, and one that satisfied the perceived need for genuine action, as opposed to the “fig leaf” actions often mentioned in fora on protection. In reality, MSF’s positioning – internal and external

– does not seem all that clear to us. Internally, a series of documents (AR 2004-2005, the La Mancha agreement, Fabrice Weissman’s article “Humanitarian Action and the Temptation of the Call to Arms”, references to Liberia and Rwanda) gradually ratified the rejection of the notion of “protection” through military intervention, although the debate continues as to, on the one hand, the legitimacy of our taking a position on this question, and on the other, a position condemning any intervention in advance and as a matter of principle. Externally, while MSF claimed refraining from issuing judgements on the advisability of an intervention, and concentrated on denouncing the duplicity of the international community, the opinion column in Le Monde suggested doubt as to the success of an intervention, if any were to take place. In short, MSF described the intervention both as a promise unlikely to be fulfilled and a plan unlikely to succeed.

In MSF’s insistence on making sure that it was not serving as a vehicle for these false promises of protection, and its corresponding caution with respect to its own activity (and the hopes raised by its presence), we see once again the mark left by Srebrenica and Kibeho on its institutional culture.

Discourse on protection, coherence and confusion of roles – Under these circumstances, the promotion of “protection” by the UN and the NGOs seemed highly problematic to MSF. It implied that protection was a shared objective, to be achieved through the actions of these  agencies (documentation, military and political intervention, etc.). In MSF’s view, this ‘integrated’ conception, which reveals the influence of the UN discourse on “coherence” (see main document), is dangerous for two sets of reasons. First, it suggests that everything is protection, that all the objectives (respect for human rights, political efforts to promote peace, imposition of these two ends by force and delivery of humanitarian aid) are consistent and mutually reinforcing. The problem is that, beneath this seeming unity, the degree to which each objective is achieved depends on the extent to which it is pursued directly for its own sake. MSF was therefore concerned about the consequences of this approach for aid delivery capability, having observed in the past (in Angola and Sierra Leone) how the relief effort can be held up by politics. Second, promoting intervention “for purposes of protection” causes a confusion of roles and issues between the political and humanitarian spheres, and this has a direct impact on the ability of humanitarian organisations to command the respect of the armed parties to the conflict. Hence, the issue for MSF was once again to reverse the proposition: whereas insecurity had become the major argument put forward by those – including NGOs – who were calling for military intervention (denoting the link between ‘protecting’ and ‘providing security’), the external positioning of MSF affirmed that insecurity was rather the consequence of the discourse on protection and of the confusion of roles. Here we see again the classic problem of neutrality in “military humanitarian intervention” contexts, which has repeatedly fuelled MSF’s positioning, from the “right to intervene” in the 1990s to the combined security-humanitarian interventions of the last few years.

“Protective actions” versus the security of patients – At a more local level, MSF also kept its distance from the “protective actions” taken by various NGOs. This difference arises in particular with regard to the victims of sexual abuse, who as we have seen became one of the pillars of the campaign denouncing the violence in Darfur and calling for armed intervention. Many UN organisations and NGOs rushed into this fashionable field where funding abounded. They focused on ‘lobbying/advocacy’ and prevention, while MSF remained the only one providing medical care.The August 2004 sitrep gives us an idea of the choices made locally in order to provide care to the victims: noting the difficulty of inducing them to come forward, the coordination team mentioned that according to the health ministry at El Geneina, “MSF can continue to treat those women as long as we do not use the results publicly”; the team explained that it would accept the ‘deal’: its priority was to reach these women and treat them, because at the time the team hardly saw them anymore. These agencies asked MSF to refer patients to them so that they could record and compile victims’ accounts as a basis for reports. Documenting events, informing the public, denouncing – these are ‘protective’ actions in keeping with MSF’s conception of protection. And yet in 2005, the teams stopped referring patients to these NGOs, realising that by doing so they were exposing the women in two ways: by asking them to repeat such a painful story yet again to a “protection officer”, who in many cases was concerned only with collecting as much information as possible; and by increasing the risk of stigmatisation, which in the Sudanese context meant social death and loss of family acceptance.Information provided during the Projects Week, May 2006

Called on to choose between protection of its patients (which in this case meant access to care, security and confidentiality) and participation in a so-called protective activity that actually put them in danger individually, MSF opted for protecting its patients. Was this choice made following a general rule, or because it was not considered imperative to publicise the sexual violence issue at the time? There is no single clear-cut answer to this question. First, care is and remains the primary activity of MSF. Second, denunciation of rape in Darfur is surely not out of the question: the May 2005 MSF-H report on sexual violence was endorsed by the  French section.In 2005, MSF-Holland published a report on sexual violence in Darfur that was widely noticed and discussed, and as a result of which two members of the team were arrested and charged by the Sudanese authorities (this episode, incidentally, helped to give MSF a certain ‘renown’ among human rights organisations that was based on a misunderstanding, as MSF was seen, after this episode, as the most courageous of the anti-genocide, anti-ethnic cleansing and pro-intervention organisations). MSF-F criticised the form of the report, but “we can only be pleased that this topic (though perhaps clumsily quantified) had been raised” (Board of Directors meeting, 23 June 2005). Third, as previously mentioned, in 2004 the team had gone so far as to provide interpreters so that the BBC could interview its patients (perhaps this initiative was re- evaluated later on, and thus played a role in making MSF realise that the interviews endangered those interviewed). The decision to suspend referrals of victims thus emerged from a choice between speaking out on the violence and other imperatives – preserving access to patients, in keeping with the priority given to providing care; preserving confidentiality; keeping our distance from the discourse on protection and intervention. In an over-politicised and over-mediatised context (and hence one where providing information about neglected violations of human rights was not an issue), these imperatives took precedence over participation in the documentation and denunciation of violence.


In November 2006, during the Sudan/Darfur yearly review in Paris, a sharp debate emerged over the appropriateness and practical details of maintaining a stable expatriate team at Kutrum, in the rebel zone.

In this debate, all agreed that there was little point in mobile clinics in the rebel zone (these were derisively called “ad campaigns with medical trappings” or “festive drug handouts”F. Weissman, “Qui sont les victimes prioritaires ?”, internal document, p. 8.). For this reason, it had been decided a year earlier, at the year-end review in 2005, to establish a permanent team. Although this permanent presence was not called into question, the desk and the former head of mission disagreed over the amount of resources that should be invested there. This debate led the head of mission to more general considerations on the factors that had determined MSF’s operational choices in Darfur (considered as choices of victims) from the outset, and how they changed over time. These thoughts were published in the article “Qui sont les victimes prioritaires ?” (Who are the priority victims?), which was widely read and used as a basis for discussion in internal training sessions.

In its conclusion, the article pleads for the allocation of substantial resources to Kutrum: “Whereas most of the NGOs were compensating for their feeling of impotence in regard to the political drama that had engulfed the Darfurians by adopting a paternalist rhetoric and calling on

the international community for support in the name of a “responsibility to protect”, we were

providing concrete assistance in line with our primary mission – health care – to those who were providing effective physical protection to the last Fur villages still standing. This is one of the reasons why I am arguing actively for in-depth consideration of the surgical care that we can provide to wounded in the rebel zone (providing ‘protection’, so to speak!)”.

This excerpt, which is by no means indicative of all the arguments made in the article, is of interest to us because it highlights (by using) the ambiguities of the ways the term “protection” is used in connection with medical activity. It begins by denying the validity of “protection” as understood by various international bodies, which amounts to no more than political  posturing. In opposition to this discourse, it sees legitimacy in concrete action to help specific victims (the neglected population of the Djebel Mara area), and argues on grounds of protection as defined in international humanitarian law, saying that it is a matter of “providing protection” to war wounded (who are protected persons if anyone is, and ‘good victims’ for MSF).

The war wounded were indeed among the issues surrounding the Kutrum project during the yearly review, just as they had been central to the earlier debates between the desk and people returning from the field. For example, at his debriefing in June 2006, the Niertiti field coordinator mentioned that Kutrum had been set up to provide care for war wounded. The desk contested this point, saying that the aim of the project was to improve access to care for people who were unable to come to Niertiti. The field coordinator insisted that the reason for the project’s existence was to care for the wounded; the desk brought the discussion back to the Niertiti project, which existed because of the presence of the displaced people, whereas in Kutrum we did not have (and did not allocate) the resources needed for regular surgery. On being questioned, the field coordinator confirmed that “when there is someone with a (bullet) wound, we are right at the heart of it … We crossed the Djebel on mule-back to visit these wounded! It was clear that we had to go: that matches the image you have of MSF”. He explained that the emergency coordinator “was all for going, very happy to go (we were fully into our role, our responsibility)”, and concludes: “Every time there were wounded we went to the scene. That was the whole basis of my work” (interview).

Speaking of the war wounded reminds us that the debate over “priority victims”, even for the purpose of delivering care, is part of the endless discussion of the content of MSF’s ‘core business’, i.e. war – questionings concerning not only vulnerability, and the types of vulnerability identified as appropriate for MSF to address, but also the political significance of the choices made. War wounded ‘versus’ women and children, displaced people and/or isolated rebels, “sacrificed” or endangered populations, victims of sexual violence versus victims of disease – this debate over the classification of priority victims and secondary victims is driven by the tension between different categories of “protected persons” (as defined by international humanitarian law). The debate at the project review certainly initiated longer-term reflection (which was perceived as necessary, as is attested by the recurrence of this theme on various occasions) on the choices made between these victims, and in which the ‘obvious’ legitimacy of certain victims and the insufficient attention given to others could be called into question. Thus, without ever explicitly using protection and international humanitarian law as frames of reference, MSF nevertheless adopts a framework that is related to them, in which action is considered, at least in part, on the basis of an assessment of different degrees of vulnerability.

Here again, we see that the responsibility assumed by MSF when confronted with violence during the Darfur crisis never covered a pre-defined field existing ‘alongside’ health care, nor a pre-defined set of actions that, by their nature, would come under the heading of “protection”.


What we did and did not do, what we called for, what we said or denounced or refrained from denouncing, can be understood only in the light of a calculation involving many elements: the relative and variable assessment of vital needs, of their coverage, of the degree of violence, of the strategies of the perpetrators, of the role(s) played by relief agencies, of the degree of publicity surrounding the crisis and the advisability of increasing it, of the types of discourse used and their impact on relief operations, etc.

In particular, within a crisis that was widely conceived of and described as coming under the category of the “responsibility to protect”, the difference in MSF’s position was obvious and lasting. Assistance and care remained the core factors that determined the choices made – as against an approach that was sometimes termed, ten years ago, “defence of populations in danger”. Does “against this approach” mean wholly against it.See D. Fassin, “Les ONG contre l’Etat, tout contre”, in Politique non governmentale, Vacarme No. 34, Winter 2005-2006.The debate over “priority victims” arrives in timely fashion to remind us that although MSF avoids the semantic field of protection and emphasises its identity as a relief organisation, it would be illusory to believe that a ‘purely care-oriented approach’ is the principle underlying the responsibilities it takes on and determines the choices it makes.