The French aid group Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) is asking U.N. peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo to stay away from the hospitals and health centers where its staff are working. The charity has also criticized the U.N. for providing armed escorts for aid workers.
The charity, usually known by its French acronym MSF, has published a letter criticizing the United Nations for combining what it suggests are contradictory mandates - to aid and protect the population but also to fight.
The letter suggests the contradiction has become acute with a U.N. Security Council resolution in March that gave a new U.N. intervention brigade the task of neutralizing armed groups in the eastern DRC.
Bertrand Perrochet is head of MSF’s mission in Congo.
He said it’s really important that humanitarian workers are seen to be neutral and independent and the new offensive mandate of the U.N. intervention brigade is creating confusion. He asked how can an organization, in this case the U.N., be at the same time humanitarian and a combatant taking sides in the conflict?
Perrochet says that’s why MSF is reminding the U.N. that it’s important that all armed groups in Congo, including the U.N. mission, known as MONUSCO, stay away from MSF health structures so that they are not targeted.
For the same reason the letter also criticizes MONUSCO policy of providing armed escorts for U.N. aid workers traveling in insecure areas.
Perrochet told VOA other non-U.N. aid workers are also sometimes “influenced” by MONUSCO and agree to travel with armed escorts.
The letter prompted a strong reaction Wednesday from MONUSCO spokesman Manodge Mounoubai, who rejects the suggestion that the U.N. in Congo has contradictory mandates.
Our mandate, said Mounoubai, is to aid, protect and fight. I don’t know what MSF wants us to do, he continued. Fold our arms and allow armed groups to kill the population? We can’t tolerate that.
He also dismisses criticism of U.N. aid workers having armed escorts.
He says MSF is trying to dictate to the UN how it should do its work. MONUSCO, he says, cannot allow colleagues from U.N. aid agencies, whether it’s the World Food Program or the children’s agency UNICEF, to work in an environment where their lives are in danger. We have a responsibility to protect them, he added, and that’s what we do.
The U.N. World Food Program, or WFP, told VOA that its food convoys in Congo, which are run by private contractors, are not normally accompanied by U.N. escorts, but that program staff traveling in U.N. vehicles are.
Up to now, a spokesman said, WFP convoys have not been attacked or pillaged by armed groups - although they are sometimes stopped by them - nor have WFP staff accompanied by armed escorts been attacked.
The World Food Program and the World Health Organization, another U.N. aid agency, both declined to comment on whether they think armed escorts for their staff are a necessity.