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Bearing witness

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.328.7437.426 (Published 19 February 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:426
  1. Tony Sheldon
  1. Utrecht

    Morten Rostrup has just finished three years as head of Médecins Sans Frontières. He tells Tony Sheldon how the agency's work is being threatened by the way aid is being co-opted into the “war on terror”

    When Norwegian doctor Morten Rostrup told the world that President George Bush was wrong—that Baghdad's hospitals were not operating normally after the city fell to US soldiers—he was adopting the outspoken approach that has long characterised the aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières.

    As president of the agency's international committee, Rostrup, 45, had witnessed the power vacuum in Baghdad and the looting as staff fled Al Kindi Hospital, leaving their patients unattended.

    As a specialist in internal medicine and intensive care he led a team that entered Baghdad days before the bombs started to fall. Once US forces entered the city he reminded the occupying powers of their “responsibilities” for civilians under the Geneva Conventions. The United States, he said, had “totally failed” to foresee the health problems.

    The agency's confrontational approach is summed up by Rostrup as “to act, provoke, challenge.” It means going beyond providing medicine, shelter, and care to bearing witness and pointing to the cause of problems. The agency leaves solutions to others. “We provoke political change by stating what we see in the field. It is a spontaneous action when you see misery and how politics is failing.”

    His three year tenure as international president has been …

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