Doctors group wins Peace Prize

Nobel panel honors physicians who unveil abuses, treat victims

October 16, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS -- Doctors Without Borders, which sends medical personnel to some of the most destitute and dangerous parts of the world -- and encourages them not only to save lives, but also to condemn the injustices they see -- was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday.

Founded in Paris in 1971 by French doctors disillusioned with the neutrality of the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres has more than 2,000 volunteer personnel who are treating the wounded, the sick and the starving in 80 countries, including 20 war zones.

Over the years, the group has been expelled from several countries for denouncing what it saw as wrong. In 1985, it was banned from Ethiopia for saying the government had diverted aid and forced migration.

In late 1994, the group withdrew from Zaire and Tanzania and denounced the operation of the refugee camps, saying they were being controlled by Hutu leaders who had been responsible for the genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

In recognizing the work of the organization, the Norwegian Nobel Committee highlighted its willingness to send volunteers quickly to scenes of disaster, no matter what the politics involved.

It praised the group for drawing the world's attention to the causes of catastrophes, which "helps to form bodies of public opinion opposed to violations and abuses of power."

"In critical situations marked by violence and brutality, the humanitarian world of Doctors Without Borders enables the organization to create openings for contacts between the opposed parties," the citation said.

"At the same time, each fearless and self-sacrificing helper shows each victim a human face, stands for respect for that person's dignity, and is a source of hope for peace and reconciliation."

Phillipe Biberson, president of the group in France, said the award was an occasion to shine light again on those his group tries to help: the starving, those living in battle zones, and those suffering from diseases such as malaria that rarely get the world's attention.

"If we are not sure that words can save," Biberson said, "we do know that silence kills."

One in four of the doctors who travel with the group to trouble spots each year is French. In recent years volunteers from 45 other countries have taken part.

The doctors and nurses, who get stipends of about $750 a month, often work under extreme conditions. For instance, in Angola this year they have maintained a clinic in Kuito, a town that has been cut off repeatedly by rebel fighters.

Some of the work is in hot spots such as Kosovo, but many of the projects -- including family planning in Armenia, basic health care in Haiti and care for the homeless in Moscow -- are far out of the limelight.

In recent years, the agency also has pulled off some logistical triumphs. In 1995, in response to a meningitis epidemic in Nigeria, staff members vaccinated 4 million people in three months.

Since the Nobel Peace Prize was first awarded in 1901, 18 other organizations have been winners or co-winners, including the International Red Cross, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Amnesty International.

The most recent was the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, which shared the award in 1997 with its coordinator, Jody Williams of the United States.

Nobel officials said there were 136 nominees for the prize this year, 101 individuals and 35 organizations.

The choice of Doctors Without Borders is not expected to help any delicate peace processes, but Francis Sejersted, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said the committee hopes it would inspire Doctors Without Borders and similar organizations to step up their work.

"There is growing need for humanitarian organizations of this kind in today's world," he said, singling out the group's commitment to Africa because the misery there often fades from public consciousness in the rest of the world.

In recent years, the agency, like many others, has complained of growing difficulty in raising funds. Officials said yesterday that they probably will put the prize money, nearly $1 million, into their budget.

It is also more difficult to find volunteers.

"Many doctors today are facing economic constraints," said Dr. Marc Gastellu Etchegorry, the group's medical director. "Taking six months off when they have school bills to pay is hard.

"And, yes, some of them are thinking more about playing golf."

The group grew out of the frustration of a group of young doctors who worked for the Red Cross and treated the starving in Biafra at the end of the 1960s. Red Cross confidentiality prevented them from speaking out.

They organized themselves in 1971 in the aftermath of severe flooding in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Poorly equipped and perhaps a little too media-hungry, they were dismissed by some aid agencies as cowboys.

That criticism is long gone, but some aid agencies still scorn Doctors Without Borders for its cozy relationship with the news media and its sometimes glittery image of attractive young doctors in the field.

It is sometimes referred to by its rivals as "Publicite sans Limite" (Publicity Without Limit).

Many of the group's founders say that speaking out about atrocities helps prevent them. Bernard Kouchner, one of the founders and now senior United Nations representative in Kosovo, said yesterday that agencies such as Doctors Without Frontiers will help make massacres impossible in the next century.

"It is very important that [Doctors Without Frontiers] does not offer shelter for disgraceful acts and suffering," Kouchner said.

"We need to convince people that the suffering of one man was the responsibility of all men. This work is not done, far from it."

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