Winning combination

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 1999, 12:00am

THE award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the French group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is a crowning accolade for an organisation that has attracted almost as many critics as admirers during its 28-year life.

MSF proved to be one of the least controversial winners in recent years. There were 136 other candidates, including Chinese dissidents. Before the announcement there were rumours that Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan were likely winners of the Norwegian prize. Beijing reacted bluntly, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue announcing that the nominations, and presumably therefore their selection, would be a 'flagrant interference in China's internal affairs'. This is a misunderstanding of what the Nobel Peace Prize is all about. It is awarded to people regardless of national boundaries and the political interests of individual governments.

However, regardless of Beijing's hectoring tone, it would have been a mistake to have awarded the prize to the dissidents. The award, after all, should go to those who have actively promoted peace and humanitarian concerns, and succeeded in having an effect; not to those who merely promulgate political change, however desirable that change may be. But there can be no argument that awarding the prize to MSF was in any way political. And there will be no suggestions of interference in countries' internal affairs. This is the band of daring doctors who speed into war and disaster zones to save lives; professional men and women ready to take often serious risks to help others.

To see the award as apolitical is correct; but also, in some ways, ironic: MSF's critics charge that it is often far too political. Certainly, its mission has been not just to salve the consequences in appalling situations, but to highlight the causes by pointing the finger of blame. It uses the media to do this to great effect, shamelessly embarrassing governments and bureaucrats and pricking the world's conscience in the process.

Perhaps MSF could be accused of upstaging the fine work of other agencies that appear rather sedate in comparison - the carefully neutral Red Cross, for example. But it is MSF that is best adapted to an age in which publicity is power. And it has proved that its combination of outspokenness and compassion can work in a world that is so easily prone to sympathy fatigue.