“I did this without thinking. I acted not as I thought I should but as I had no choice but to do.”
An aide doctor caught sight of movement just out of his frame at a feeding center in war torn Somalia circa 1992. Scanning the mound of bodies that rested near the medical tent, a hand could be faintly seen grabbing at anything, anyone. This doctor found an emaciated, middle-aged man weighing no more than 70 lbs, clinging to life yet already predetermined to die by the aide staff due to a lack of available time and resources. Enraged by what he described as “the efficiency of placing the living among the dead,” this doctor found himself in the position where neutrality was simply not enough.
James Orbinski, the physician described above, began working withMedecins Sans Frontieres in 1992 and was appointed as President of the MSF International Council from 1998 to 2001. His experiences with MSF further magnified his resolve to stand as a humanitarian activist for the voices of those being quieted around the world.
“When I began working with MSF, I naively accepted the cloak of the apolitical doctor. I believe humanitarianism-with its principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence-to be outside of politics, in some ways even superior to it, and a way of avoiding its messy business. But I would come to see humanitarianism not as separate from politics but in relation to it, and as a challenge to political choices that too often kill or allow others to be killed.”-Excerpt from An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the 21st Century
This position provides a stark contrast to the viewpoints of the Red Cross and represents the birth of MSF and what is known as témoignage. The Red Cross practices what is known as silent diplomacy, meaning that they typically take the stance of neutrality no matter what is taking place. The logic behind silent diplomacy is that, by maintaining neutrality, medical attention can be shown to everyone. This misguided logic, although noble in its own respect, fails to actually deal with the problem, and instead applies an ephemeral bandage, both literally and figuratively. A few doctors, while working with the Red Cross, understood this, and thus MSF was born. Their determination to both serve and advocate for the people they serve is what sets them apart. That mentality can be summed up best in what témoignage symbolizes to them.
“The word ‘témoignage’ comes from the French verb, ‘temoigner,’ which literally translates as ‘to witness’. Témoignage-or witnessing-is simply the act of being willing to speak out about what we see happening in front of us. In MSF, this means willingness to speak on behalf of the people we assist: to bring abuses and intolerable situations to the public eye.”-Medecins Sans Frontieres on Advocacy
Nike’s famous, “We are all witnesses” advertising campaign comes to mind when materializing the practice of acknowledgment. We speak passionately about last night’s ball game, thereby reinforcing the position of those players in history in respect to each and every one of us. The question thus remains, with our ability to bear witness to events locally and around the planet, what did you do to improve the human condition? The awareness of social injustices is simply not enough anymore. We must act. We must advocate. Témoignage.