MSF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. The judges chose MSF “in recognition of the organization’s pioneering humanitarian work on several continents” and to honour our medical staff, who have worked in more than 80 countries and treated tens of millions of people.
MSF is known for more than just medical work — the organization also speaks out and acts to expose injustice. The Nobel Prize offered a platform for MSF to speak out, and Canada's Dr. James Orbinski, then-president of the MSF International Council, used his acceptance speech at the award ceremony to condemn Russian violence against civilians in Chechnya.
"I appeal here today to his excellency the Ambassador of Russia and through him, to President Yeltsin, to stop the bombing of defenseless civilians in Chechnya. If conflicts and wars are an affair of the state, violations of humanitarian law, war crimes and crimes against humanity apply to us all — as civil society, as citizens and as human beings."
Silence can kill
Justifying this unprecedented move, Dr. Orbinski said: “Silence has long been confused with neutrality, and has been presented as a necessary condition for humanitarian action. From its beginning, MSF was created in opposition to this assumption.
“We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill."
Dr. Orbinski then spoke freely about the power and the limitations of humanitarianism.
“No doctor can stop a genocide. No humanitarian can stop ethnic cleansing, just as no humanitarian can make war. And no humanitarian can make peace. These are political responsibilities, not humanitarian imperatives.
“Let me say this very clearly: the humanitarian act is the most apolitical of all acts, but if its actions and its morality are taken seriously, it has the most profound of political implications. And the fight against impunity is one of these implications.”
The proceeds from the prize were used to set up a Neglected Disease Fund, designed to support pilot projects for the clinical development, production, procurement and distribution of treatments for neglected diseases, such as Chagas, sleeping sickness and malaria.