PARIS — Doctors Without Borders, the gutsy and media-wise volunteer group that rushes medical and humanitarian succor to victims of war and disaster worldwide, on Friday was awarded the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize.
Pioneer of a controversial approach to humanitarian activism, the organization often simply referred to as "the French doctors" insists on its right to act independently of governments and its moral duty to boldly speak out about the plight of the people it helps.
At a time when CNN, the Internet and other media usher Third World emergencies into American living rooms, first word of a looming crisis in a faraway locale frequently comes from Doctors Without Borders.
"We are not sure that words always save," Dr. Philippe Biberson, an epidemiologist and president of the group's French branch, said Friday. "But we know, and are sure, that silence kills."
The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it selected the group known in French as Medecins Sans Frontieres from among 136 nominees that included President Clinton, Pope John Paul II and a pair of prominent Chinese dissidents, Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng. The committee cited the group's "pioneering work on several continents" and its outspokenness.
"By intervening so rapidly, Doctors Without Borders calls public attention to humanitarian catastrophes," the five-member committee said in its announcement. "And by pointing to the causes of such catastrophes, the organization helps to form bodies of public opinion opposed to violations and abuses of power."
Doctors Without Borders has 10,000 local staff members and 1,500 expatriates, including 600 doctors, at work in 80 countries. More than a score of those lands are in the throes of military or civil conflict.
In accepting the prize, officials of the organization expressed hope that the award will draw attention to the victims of current emergencies: civilians in the strife-torn Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, and millions in developing nations who suffer from or are at risk of contracting malaria, tuberculosis, sleeping sickness and other ailments.
"The diseases, and these people, are forgotten people," said Dr. James Orbinski of Canada, president of the group's international council. "They are outside the normal state systems that are in charge of looking after their needs."
Group Was Nominated Eight Times Before
At the organization's Paris office, near the Bastille, the youngish staff burst into raucous applause at news of the prize. Doctors Without Borders had been nominated eight previous years to no avail.
Gilles Delmas, usually in charge of delivering pharmaceuticals, automobiles and other supplies to faraway trouble spots, said he was suddenly faced with a new mission: tracking down enough champagne for staff members and guests to toast the prize.
Doctors Without Borders had its genesis in the 1967-70 genocide in Biafra, during which 1 million people perished as the Nigerian region unsuccessfully sought independence. Until then, humanitarian agencies acted only with the blessing of host governments.
To a handful of young and idealistic French physicians, even the International Committee of the Red Cross seemed overly solicitous of official approval and too cautiously neutral to denounce even mass murder. Five days before Christmas 1971, the physicians created what would become Doctors Without Borders.
The physicians "got involved in things that were none of their business," joked one founding member, gastroenterologist Bernard Kouchner, currently the top U.N. administrator in war-damaged Kosovo. Kouchner, a left-wing politician and former French health minister, went on to formulate the daring doctrine that humanitarian organizations possess a "right to interfere" in countries to save lives, whatever host authorities might say.
At first, some established aid agencies viewed the French upstart as amateurish, glamour-hungry and ineffective. In its own ranks, egos have been a problem: Kouchner left Doctors Without Borders in 1980 to found a rival organization, Doctors of the World. The breakaway faction had wanted to operate a ship to rescue Vietnamese refugees, but colleagues feared the effort would only encourage more people to risk the dangerous boat passage from their Asian homeland.
Doctors Without Borders' dashing image and one-world philosophy held great appeal for idealistic physicians, and 19 worldwide offices, including one in the United States, sprang up. These days, though, the organization admits to difficulty recruiting volunteers for the customary six-month field missions.
"People who've just completed their studies want to cash in on them," said Dr. Gastelu Etchegorry, the group's medical director, who first volunteered in 1986 to work in a 250-bed Angolan hospital that had no running water and little electricity. "And it's not only in America that doctors want a Mercedes or to play golf."