© Martin Zinggl/MSF
06 Sep 17 06 Sep 17

Advocacy & Témoignage

For many, MSF is synonymous with emergency medical teams tackling disasters, wars and epidemics around the world. But we also work to raise awareness and create debate about these crises through our policy of témoignage.

This means MSF acts as a witness and will speak out, either in private or in public, about the plight of populations in danger for whom we work. In doing so, MSF sets out to alleviate human suffering, to protect life and health and to restore respect for human beings and their fundamental human rights.

MSF and témoignage — what does it mean?

The word témoignage comes from the French verb témoigner, which literally means ‘to bear witness’.

Témoignage — or bearing witness — is speaking out about what we have seen.

In MSF, this implies a willingness bring abuses and intolerable situations to public attention.

MSF's creation

When MSF was first created in 1971, its original members had worked for the Red Cross in a civil war in Nigeria that pitted government forces against rebels from the secessionist state of Biafra. Red Cross policy precluded speaking out, for fear of losing access and the ability to work.

Hundreds of thousands of people died in the Biafran war because of a deliberate government policy. On their return from the region, a group of young French doctors were frustrated and outraged by the inability of the Red Cross to say publicly what had happened.

They joined journalists from a French medical journal to create an association, Médecins Sans Frontières, which would provide aid in war zones, but also talk about what they saw. They hoped that by bringing abuses to light they could bring them to an end.

This group refused to watch in silence in spite of the risks because they believed that silence could kill, making those that watched complicit in the atrocities.

Acting and speaking, treating and witnessing were the key words used during the creation of MSF. Today, these are still valid.

Speaking Out Case Studies

MSF openly examines and analyzes the organization’s actions and decision-making process during humanitarian emergencies that have led it to speak out.

From denouncing the forced relocation in Ethiopia in 1985 to the inaction of the international community during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that demanded an end to indiscriminate bombings of civilians in Chechnya and much more.

In these studies, key information sources – MSF staff’s written and oral recollections – are reconstructed by highlighting documents and videos from the period concerned and interviewing the main actors.

Read MSF’s Speaking Out Case Studies on speakingout.msf.org.