Worrying ruling in court case between Dutch Government and MSF

The medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is  shocked by the judgment rendered by Switzerland's highest judicial body, the Federal Tribunal. Following four years of proceedings, and in spite of two previous rulings in favour of MSF in both the first instance and appeal actions, the Federal Tribunal partly ruled in favour of the Dutch state by ruling that the financial burden should be shared between the two parties. This decision sets a grave precedent for independent humanitarian action in zones of conflict.

The case concerns the repayment of a ransom paid by the Dutch authorities to obtain the release of Arjan Erkel, a Dutch civilian and MSF head of mission, who was held hostage in the North Caucasus region for 20 months after being abducted in August, 2002.

"Following two rulings in favour of MSF, this judgment of Solomon is appalling. It obscures the role played by a government that negotiated and paid a ransom, and then passed on the bill to MSF. This decision forms part of a more serious trend, which undermines independent humanitarian action. This ruling, given in the very country where the Geneva Conventions were signed, is worrying for the teams working in zones of conflict, such as Somalia, or Darfur," stressed Isabelle Segui-Bitz, President of MSF Switzerland.

Since the facts established by the Geneva Court of Justice in February 2008 unequivocally confirmed the cogency of MSF's position, it is unacceptable to now ask a humanitarian organization to share the cost of a ransom negotiated and paid by a government.

By agreeing to downgrade the consequences of the abduction of a humanitarian worker to a mere commercial dispute, as requested by the Dutch government, the Federal Tribunal's ruling is contributing to making unpunished crimes against humanitarian workers – which have become more frequent in recent years – part of everyday life.