News & Stories

Former MSF President Questions Notion of Humanitarian Wars

Posted May 05 2019
Physician Rony Brauman, former president of Médecins sans Frontières, visited SIPA to talk about his new book, “Humanitarian Wars? Lies and Brainwashing.”
Physician Rony Brauman, former president of Médecins sans Frontières, visited SIPA to talk about his new book, “Humanitarian Wars? Lies and Brainwashing.”

The French physician Rony Brauman served as president of Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) from 1982 to 1994, but his work for the organization is just one highlight in a record of humanitarian work that stretches back more than 40 years.

A specialist in tropical medicine and epidemiology, Brauman is currently a director of studies at MSF-Crash and also teaches at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester (England). He visited SIPA on April 29 to talk about his new book, Humanitarian Wars? Lies and Brainwashing.

Dean Merit E. Janow introduced Brauman along with discussants Rick MacArthur, who is president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine; and Professor Elazar Barkan, the director of SIPA’s concentration in human rights and humanitarian policy.

Brauman started his presentation with a quote from Carl von Clausewitz that most students in SIPA’s International Security Policy concentration would recognize:

No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.

Brauman’s book lays out the criteria ascribed to “just wars” in order to criticize what he called the Western obsession with imposing democratic values by force. In his analysis the author takes a critical look at the efforts of international peacekeeping bodies and tribunals like the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court.

Brauman examined three specific UN interventions—in Libya, Kosovo, and Somalia—that he considered to be humanitarian wars. Though different in many ways, he said, each was characterized by unclear objectives and a deep reliance on lies and misinformation, he said.

Simply and explicitly, Brauman said the UN action in Libya was motivated by lies. He said that politicians and the media amplified incorrect information to justify entering the nation on humanitarian grounds in 2011. He said the intervention was the first of its kind, authorized under the UN-endorsed Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

If Libya was a scam, Brauman said, than action in Somalia in the early 1990s was something altogether different—a sleight of hand.

“It was a decent objective, but [relied on] distortion of fact,” he said. Amid famine, war, and displaced people, he said, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had ambitions of empowering the UN after the fall of the Soviet Union. Specifically, Boutros-Ghali wanted the UN to be strong enough to impose peace.

While famine relief was possible, Boutros-Ghali chose convoys instead, that eventually had to be defended by UN military intervention. In fact, there were more blue helmets in six years from 1990 to 1995 than from the 45 years prior.

“Somalia was testing ground for new mission of the UN – which quickly turned into state building,” said Brauman.

Kosovo, finally, offered still another type of case—a “political stunt with positive collateral effect,” in Brauman’s words. He said UN action in Kosovo had the clear and achievable objective of regime change. Brauman says he supported action in Kosovo, adding further that it should have happened sooner, but he nevertheless criticized the effort for not discussing its real goal, he said, of restoring legitimacy of NATO in Europe.

Brauman ended by insisting on the differences between these events and dispelling any suspicion of hidden conspiracies. “These are three humanitarian wars, but with three different motives, and three different types of stakeholders,” said Brauman. Pulling from his medical background, he concluded, “sometimes the remedy is worse than the disease.”

— Claire Teitelman MPA ’19