News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Dutch government demands reimbursement for charity worker's ransom

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 24 June 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:1516
  1. Tony Sheldon
  1. Utrecht

    The Dutch Foreign Ministry is suing medical aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for €1m (£0.7m, $1.2m) that it claims it merely “advanced” to secure the release of kidnapped aid worker Arjan Erkel in April.

    The aid organisation is refusing to pay, however, saying it was not party to any deal and arguing governments must take responsibility for protecting aid workers.

    Erkel, a Dutch citizen, was kidnapped by armed gunmen in the Russian Caucasian republic of Dagestan in August 2002. He was released this year after 20 months in captivity. The government and MSF give differing accounts of how the release of Erkel was achieved.

    MSF ran high profile media campaigns for his release in which it criticised both the Dutch and Russian authorities for not doing enough to secure his freedom. Faced with what it felt was “political inaction,” MSF also investigated other means such as hiring private individuals. For this purpose it had deposited €250 000 with the Dutch embassy in Moscow.

    Tensions eventually lead to a breakdown of official relations between MSF and the Dutch government. The organisation claims that it was only at the last minute that the Dutch government informed it that an arrangement had been negotiated for Erkel's release. The organisation's priority was to ensure that his release went ahead so it agreed that the government should proceed. MSF says that it made no financial commitments, however.

    The Dutch government's version of events is somewhat different. It says that its embassy in Moscow was told that Erkel would be released if a ransom was paid by MSF within 24 hours. It claims that MSF could not raise the money so it asked the foreign ministry for an advance.

    The ministry did not want to jeopardise Erkel's safety so it advanced the required amount. It says that it was MSF that negotiated with Erkel's kidnappers, through an intermediary, not the Dutch government. It claims that it would never cross “two red lines”—paying a ransom or negotiating with kidnappers.

    Foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Bot has now accused MSF of not being a “serious organisation” that would “respect agreements made.” He criticised the organisation's attitude, saying it would have “negative consequences” for staff of comparable humanitarian organisations working in dangerous areas.

    Austen Davis, the Dutch director of Médecins Sans Frontières, said: “In the case of this sort of kidnapping only political pressure can ensure a quick release. If governments do not take their responsibilities or apply too little pressure these cases drag on and are eventually solved through payment.”

    MSF argues national governments are bound by international law to protect humanitarian aid workers. After attacks in Iraq, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1502, passed in August last year, urged governments to ensure that aid workers were protected and that crimes against such people were punished.

    MSF is calling for an “independent public investigation into the resolution of this kidnapping.”

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