Humanitarianism and Boundaries

September 27, 2013

Last night, I attended a session at James Madison University about the work of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the issues of borders/boundaries. Emily Lynch, who served with MSF in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the last couple of years (and previously engaged in humanitarian efforts in Rwanda and Haiti), talked about humanitarian work and showed photos and a video from her time in the DRC (the photo is one I took of Lynch). In her talk, which was titled "Meaning of Boundaries When Violence and Pain are Involved?," Lynch mixed in stories as she talked about humanitarian principles and challenges. She noted that MSF added the ideal of "witnessing" to the traditional humanitarian principles like humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. The idea of "witnessing" means that MSF personnel speak out about what they see since they believe silence helps perpetrators. This puts MSF in contrast with some other humanitarian groups that interpret neutrality to mean that they should not even speak out on politically-controversial matters like blaming a side for genocide. Although MSF does not join a side in a conflict, they do not remain silent when crimes against humanity are committed. This principle is an important shift because to not speak is to take a side. Silence is itself a communicative act with profound consequences, especially when it comes in a war zone or other humanitarian crisis. It was exciting to hear about the work of the MSF in crossing many borders and boundaries besides just geographical ones.

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