50+ years of bearing witness and speaking out

MSF protests with other organizations, urging European governments not to support Libyan authorities’ life-threatening disregard for the rights of refugees to dignified treatment and safety. Italy, 2021.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was created in 1971 in the wake of the famine in Biafra, Nigeria, a crisis that shook the world. Some of the doctors working in Biafra with the International Committee of the Red Cross felt constrained by its policy of not speaking out and joined with journalists to create a new kind of international assistance organization.

Since then, MSF has regularly called upon the media, governments, pharmaceutical companies and the public to pay attention to the problems driving emergency needs, in the hope of initiating positive and lasting changes for the communities we work with and the people we assist.

Below is a timeline of some key moments in MSF’s history of bearing witness and speaking out.


FRANCE: A new form of humanitarianism

MSF is founded in Paris by doctors and journalists who believe témoignage (French, meaning “bearing witness”) has a crucial role to play in medical humanitarian action.

THAILAND: Supporting refugees

MSF sets up our first large-scale medical program for refugees in Thailand for people fleeing Cambodia and Vietnam. In 1980, team members join the March for Survival at the Cambodia-Thailand border calling for international assistance to be distributed in Cambodia.

AFGHANISTAN: Clandestine medical care

Sometimes, bearing witness is just about being with people during moments of crisis. Over 10 years of the Soviet occupation, MSF medical teams on horseback secretly cross the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan to set up small hospitals deep in the mountains, aware that speaking out could jeopardize our ability to offer care to communities who need it.

ETHIOPIA: The risk of speaking out

MSF runs therapeutic feeding centres and provides food, medicines, and supplies during a devastating famine. When the government forcibly displaces people and diverts humanitarian assistance, we speak out, resulting in the expulsion of one of two MSF sections.

SOMALIA: Forced out by violence

MSF treats thousands of children suffering from malnutrition but is forced to leave the country following kidnappings and security incidents. MSF speaks out against excessive military force and flawed foreign military interventions.

RWANDA: Testimony on genocide at the United Nations

MSF teams witness the massacre of Rwandan colleagues and patients in a genocide that takes up to a million lives. We testify before the UN for the first time – and call for military action, also for the first time.

SREBRENICA: Calling for accountability

After UN peacekeepers abandon Srebrenica, more than 7,000 people are killed and 40,000 forcibly removed. MSF, as the last humanitarian agency in the enclave, calls for an inquiry into the UN troops’ failure to prevent the tragedy.

HIV: The global fight for access to treatment

MSF joins activists calling for equitable access to antiretroviral medicines, priced beyond the reach of most countries. The campaign helps lead to the production of generic drugs at dramatically lower prices.

KOSOVO: A call to protect civilians

MSF provides medical care to people in refugee camps fleeing Serbian violence in Kosovo and calls for the protection of civilians who remain.

MSF receives the Nobel Peace Prize

Canadian Dr. James Orbinski, president of MSF’s international council, denounces Russian forces for their indiscriminate bombing in Grozny, Chechnya. In his acceptance speech, he says, “We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.”

DARFUR, SUDAN: Bearing witness at the UN

Fighting between Sudanese government forces and rebels kills thousands of people and displaces more than one million. MSF provides medical and nutritional care and calls out the international community in a speech to the UN Security Council for its failure to protect civilians.

NIGER: A revolution in nutritional care

MSF treats thousands of children with malnutrition, many at home, with a peanut- based ready-to-use therapeutic food called Plumpy’Nut. It proves so successful it becomes a national protocol, and we advocate for its use worldwide.

HAITI: MSF’s largest operation

When Haiti is struck by an earthquake, MSF treats wounded people, rebuilds medical facilities, restores access to safe water and responds to a massive cholera epidemic, our largest operation to date. Teams are interviewed by various media and gather testimonies.

SYRIA: Underground medical care

Without official authorization, MSF provides essential medicines and supplies to local health providers and opens three hospitals in northern Syria. MSF continues to care for many people among the millions displaced in Syria and in neighbouring countries and speaks out when medical facilities and staff are attacked.

WEST AFRICA: Where is the global response?

In the world’s largest Ebola outbreak, MSF sets up treatment centres in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – and criticizes the international community’s inaction. More than 11,300 people lose their lives before the spread of the virus is contained.

MEDITERRANEAN SEA: No to funding from the European Union

With thousands of asylum seekers attempting to reach Europe by sea, MSF launches a search and rescue and medical assistance operation. In 2016, we announce we will no longer accept funding from the European Union and member states, whose migration deterrence policies include turning back boats full of people searching for asylum.


After multiple attacks on MSF facilities, particularly in Yemen, South Sudan and Syria, MSF addresses the UN Security Council to call for member states to implement UN Resolution 2286 to protect civilians in conflict. We also launch our #NotATarget social media campaign.

BANGLADESH: Bearing witness to atrocities in Myanmar

When more than 700,000 Rohingya people flee to Bangladesh, MSF teams offer assistance in massive and overpopulated camps. After gathering statements and conducting surveys with survivors, we publish a report documenting the scale of the violence in Myanmar.

COVID-19: Action and solidarity in a global pandemic

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, MSF demands pharmaceutical companies stop profiting off the pandemic and ensure fair and equitable access to lifesaving vaccines and treatment for all.