Medical Neutrality? The Red Cross and MSF

Adam Curtis is one of my favourite film-makers: I don’t think his programmes are always right, but they’re always provocative – and I think they’re more right than wrong.  He also has a blog, which – though updated even less frequently than this one at the moment – is excellent.

His latest post is about the evolution of humanitarian intervention; I do recommend setting aside an hour or so to have a look at it.  But if you can’t spare the time, scroll down to the bit about Médecins Sans Frontières: it raises some interesting questions about the idea of medical neutrality in conflict zones.  For MSF’s founder, Bernard Kouchner, neutrality is no such thing:

Kouchner had worked for the Red Cross in Biafra, but he had become disgusted by the Red Cross’ refusal to publicise the genocide created by the Nigerian government.

Just as the Red Cross hadn’t revealed the horrors they saw in World War Two in the Nazi concentration camps because they insisted on being “neutral”

Kouchner resigned and went back to Paris where he founded a new humanitarian organisation called Medecins Sans Frontieres. Being neutral, Kouchner said, really meant being complicit in the horror. And MSF would never be complicit. It was on the side of the innocent victims.

It’s fascinating to see how, at least in the early days of MSF, their claim was that the Red Cross was not neutral – that it should have been more interventionist.  I’m reminded of Churchill’s complaint about the BBC during the war, that being impartial between the Allies and the Axis was like being impartial between the firemen and the fire.  And perhaps that terminology is important: maybe there is an important difference between neutrality and impartiality.

We do expect medics in conflict zones to be neutral – but, of course, by the fact that they’re there at all, they aren’t wholly neutral: they’ve taken a moral position and are acting based on what it demands.  This seems to be the MSF position; what counts is not neutrality, but the just – impartial – application of a non-neutral moral position.  Except that doesn’t seem right, quite, either.  Maybe there isn’t all that much between neutrality and impartiality – but, in that case, the MSF objection to the Red Cross seems a bit petulant.

I don’t know.  But I do thoroughly recommend Curtis and his blog.

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