Should Doctors Without Borders Opt Out of Continuing to Provide Medical Care to Libyan Detainees?

An MSF physiotherapist providing medical assistance to a Libyan detainee in a detention center in Misrata.

Last month, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF for short, decided to put an end to all efforts designed to provide medical care to Libyan detainees, according to MSF’s general director Christopher Stokes. The organization, which is globally recognized for its humanitarian relief in both war and natural disaster swept countries, believed that their services were not being employed for the common good.

Since August of 2011, MSF had been stationed in Misrata–Libya’s third largest city–providing medical relief to detainees who had been injured in the war. However, MSF soon began noticing a disturbing trend. A large majority of the wounds in which MSF was treating the Libyan detainees for were being obtained during torturous interrogation sessions by the National Army Security Service. And what was more disturbing was the fact that many of these same detainees that had been previously treated by MSF for torture wounds were being sent back to the organization for the treatment of additional torture wounds–which were being acquired during further interrogation sessions. In fact, on one occasion, MSF had been asked to actually provide medical aid to detainees after interrogation sessions. MSF, of course, did not carry out the request.

In all, MSF provided medical aid to a total of 115 detainees suffering from torture wounds. And despite the organization’s actions towards alerting the appropriate authorities of the inhumane activities that were occurring beyond the scope of the detention centers, their efforts were to no avail. Even so, there are some important questions that must be asked here. Is MSF just in their decision to stop providing medical treatment to Libyan detainees altogether? Is the organization handling the situation in the most virtuous and upstanding manner possible? Or is MSF not only turning the other cheek, but in a  more drastic sense, committing the crime of negligence?

My thoughts on the topic are as followed: I believe that MSF made the right decision to discontinue medical treatment to Libyan detainees because by continuing to do so, the organization would only be sustaining this cycle of abuse. How so? Because MSF is fully aware of what is really going on in these interrogation centers; MSF knows that their humanitarian relief services are being terribly misused. Therefore, by continuing to offer medical care to tortured Libyan detainees, they would in actuality be committing the greater offense of facilitating the merciless interrogation tactics of the National Army Security Service–the agency that runs the interrogations. Furthermore, MSF’s mission of providing medical care to individuals whose very survival is being compromised by the effects of “violence, neglect, or catastrophe” (Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières) would be negated–if it has not been done so already. In other words, the organization would be providing these detainees medical care, but only for it to be completely undermined again. So in a larger sense, this idea of “humanitarian relief” would not necessarily be in effect.

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1 comment
  1. What a terrible ethical conundrum. Pulling out of Misrata — and thereby denying tortured detainees access to medical care — must have been a very difficult choice to make, yet staying might have made MSF complicit in the detainees’ further torture.

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