In the past year, doctors working in rebel-controlled northern Syria for the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders) began seeing signs of neurotoxic symptoms in an alarming number of patients. These were the first signs of the increasing chemical warfare, which began with small-scale attacks earlier this year and and grew to a gas attack in August that killed hundreds. As the leaders of the organization realized what was occurring, they faced another big issue: releasing this sensitive information would be highly dangerous for the group's doctors and their Syrian partners, making them appear to side with the rebels and angering the government. Furthermore, the group feared their words would spark interference from other governments, including the Obama administration.
While Doctors Without Borders chose to take the risk and issue a public statement, many other organizations, including the Red Cross, strictly stick to a neutral state, working in countries only after obtaining approval from the governments and refraining from releasing any information that would put them in danger.
Many ethical questions arise from this seemingly safe, smart decision: When should one draw the line? Is it wiser to stay quiet to keep assisting people on the brink of death, or speak up about situations in which people are being harmed or killed and thus risk being closed down and kicked out? Where exactly is the line?
Countless other moral conflicts exist:
- How far does the humanitarian responsibility extend- is it right for organizations to pull out before peace, economic, and political stability is reached?
- When does cooperation with a warring parties turn into bystanding on human rights violations?
- Can humanitarian relief work focus on a narrow range of problems, or should it address the broad range of challenges facing many health systems around the world?
- What should an agency do if the problem might be magnified with their good intentions, such as food drops that spark violent raids?
These are all dilemmas we must consider as an organization dedicated to addressing health disparities around the world. I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues, and get some discussions and debates going on around campus!