“We, humanitarians, do not choose between the good and the bad ill persons, between the good and the badly wounded.”

To impose on humanitarian organizations, in the name of the fight against terrorism, a “screening” of the people included in their programs is tantamount to exposing them by passing them off as snitches, emphasizes Pierre Micheletti, president of Action Against Hunger, in an article in “Le Monde”, judging the results of the National Humanitarian Conference to be disappointing.

Tribune. The National Humanitarian Conference (CNH), organized every two years by the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs and the French NGOs united within Coordination SUD, held its fifth edition in Paris on December 17, in a virtual format due to health constraints. It did not clearly lead to political decisions, which are crucial to guarantee the ability of humanitarian organizations to act, as well as security.

The roundtable on terrorism thus took as its starting point the premise that humanitarian action had as its major concern not to be an instrument likely to finance international terrorism. The legal-administrative debates that immediately followed among the participants reflected the technocratic drift in which the humanitarian movement has been mired for several years. Access and support to populations in turmoil have, from then on, appeared to be relegated to collateral considerations for banks and donor government administrations.

Indeed, the initial hypothesis, stating that our programs could “feed” terrorism, has never been documented or shared with NGOs. No proof of this has been provided. However, this hypothesis is the basis of the heavy control mechanism (of the employees, partners and service providers of our projects) which leads to the saturation of our procedures and confronts us with the Kafkaesque dilemmas to which we are subjected in order to transfer funds in the field and pay expenses such as the salaries of our teams.

Respect for the principle of neutrality

This suspicion expressed towards NGOs is first and foremost in total contradiction with our mandate. On the battlefield of Solferino in 1859, Henry Dunant (1828-1910), founder of the International Red Cross movement and father of international humanitarian law, did not choose between the Prussians and the French: he sided with the wounded soldiers. At the time, they represented 90% of the war’s dead. Today, 90% of the victims of violence are civilians who are still being penalized by developments in the fight against terrorism.

Our mandate is centered on the possibility of being able to rescue survivors, displaced persons and refugees from all the fighting. This mandate is inseparable from the cardinal principles instigated by Dunant, which have now been validated by the United Nations General Assembly. These principles are our lightning rod. The principle of neutrality first, which does not place us on the side of any of the parties to the conflict.

Conflicts that now no longer see conventional armies of rival states confronting each other, but rather rebel groups, who clash with the regular army of their country, in the service of those whose legitimacy or conditions of exercise of power they question. The second principle that guides humanitarians is that of impartiality. We do not choose between the good and the bad sick, between the good and the badly wounded.

A fatal political polarization

Finally, the principle of independence puts us in a position where we are not under the influence of any client, be it political or financial. These principles are undermined by the role that governmental funders, almost all of them from Western Europe or North America, intend to see us play in areas of conflict.

Wanting to get involved in the fight against terrorism is symbolically positioning ourselves against terrorists. It means settling into a potentially fatal political polarization. This is degree zero of the precautionary principle for the security of our teams in the field. We have not been heard on our request for a global exemption for humanitarians from the application of anti-terrorist laws.

Our concrete proposals to change the French penal code were not put on the political agenda in the speech delivered on this occasion by President Emmanuel Macron. An additional measure, aimed at imposing a “screening” of those included in our programs, remains unclear as to its effective application by funders such as the French Development Agency (AFD). And this, despite the positions for the suppression of this project, unequivocally expressed by the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the representative of the European Union.

Remaining vigilant on the exegesis of the presidential word

The stated intention is to verify that the recipients of our assistance are not on lists of persons identified as having belonged to terrorist groups. This measure exposes humanitarians, in sometimes very violent environments, to be seen as snitches and indicators in the eyes of rebel groups. This is a very serious, and very worrying measure. This request constitutes a red line that international solidarity organizations should not cross.

In response to the concern expressed by the NGOs, the President of the Republic resorted to a vague formulation: “We will fully apply the principle of non-discrimination in the allocation of aid.” There remains a fundamental ambiguity in the Head of State’s statement between the place of military operations, development aid and humanitarian interventions, inscribing these three registers of action in an overall coherence, under the banner of the French State.

A rapprochement that today may have far-reaching consequences. It may indeed result in the endangerment of teams summoned to play a role in the fight against terrorism, the risk of being prevented from acting and the threat of criminalization of aid, which has not been totally ruled out. These obstacles, which in part persist, combine with the doubts, against the backdrop of Covid-19, about the possibility of raising the necessary funding for the 235 million people who will need help in 2021. We will have to remain vigilant on the exegesis of the presidential speech that will be given by the administrations.

Pierre Micheletti is the author of 0.03%! Pour une transformation du mouvement humanitaire international, published by Parole, 2020, 269 pages, €19.

Pierre Micheletti (President of Action Against Hunger/ACF.)

Who is Pierre Micheletti ?

Doctor, graduate of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Santé Publique, he began his first experiences abroad in 1985. In 1987, he joined Médecins du Monde as head of mission in Guatemala. He became program director in 1996 and was elected president in 2006 until 2009.

Since 2009 he has been teaching at the Grenoble Institute of Political Studies where he co-directs the master’s degree in “Politics and Practices of International Organizations”, as well as at the Grenoble Faculty of Medicine where he created and directs the “health-solidarity-precarity” diploma.

In 2014, he joins the Board of Directors of Action Contre la Faim, of which he becomes Chairman in 2019.

He is the author of numerous articles in the national written press, in particular as a contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique.

Other functions in the health field:

  • Director of Health for the City of Grenoble (2000-2008)
  • Technical advisor and member of the Executive Board of the St. Egrève Psychiatric Hospital (2009-2014)
  • President of the Association of Health Centers (Agecsa)(2009-2014)
  • Chairman of the Health Commission and member of the Board of Directors of Uniopss (2012-2016)
  • Member of the National Council for Mental Health (2014-2016)
  • Publications, excluding scientific articles and national press


  • Humanitaire : s’adapter ou renoncer (essai), Marabout, Paris, 2008
  • Les orphelins, (roman) Lucien Souny (2ème édition), 2016 (1ère édition DDB/RFI 2010)
  • Les Poissons pleurent aussi (roman), Ed. Lucien Souny, 2016, poche 2020
  • Une mémoire d’Indiens (récit), Ed. Parole, 2018
  • O,O3% pour une transformation du mouvement humanitaire international, (Essai), Ed. Parole 2020.


  • Afghanistan : Gagner les cœurs et les esprits, PUG, RFI, 2014
  • La santé des populations vulnérables, avec C. Adam, V. Faucherre et G. Pascal, Ellipses, Paris mars 2017

Contributor to collective works:

  • L’action humanitaire internationale entre le droit et la pratique, sous la direction d’Abdelwahab Biad, Némésis-Anthémis, Bruxelles 2016
  • La nouvelle géographie du développement, sous la direction d’Arnaud Zaccharie, La Muette – Le bord de l’eau, Bruxelles, 2016
  • Dictionnaire de la guerre et de la paix, sous la direction de Benoît Durieux, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène-Vilmer et Frédéric Ramel, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris mars 2017
  • Droit et pratique de l’action humanitaire, sous la direction de Sandra Szurek,Marina Eudes (Auteur) Philippe Ryfman (Auteur), LGDJ Lextenso, Paris, 2019

Preface writer:

  • Toute une vie d’humanitaire, Pascal Grellety-Boisviel, Elytis, 2013
  • Jours tranquilles à Kaboul, Emmanuel Moy, Riveneuve éditions, 2014
  • Comprendre les organisations humanitaires, François Audet, Presses Universitaires du Québec, Montréal 2016

Faced with an emergency, the art of prolonging the wait

Following the 5th National Humanitarian Conference, Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier reviews the progress made by humanitarian organizations in the face of the problems of screening and anti-terrorist sanctions.

The preparation of the 5th NHRC had raised hopes among humanitarian NGOs for a government response to the serious issues that undermine their capacity for action and their security on the ground. The commitment of the Head of State on the humanitarian file was strong and should allow progress on certain issues bogged down in various interministerial arbitrations.  This perspective led to a very strong commitment from the NGOs to make very successful proposals on a limited number of concrete issues.

2 files yet appeared to be a priority for everyone:

  • Strengthen the application and respect of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which legitimizes and secures the action of NGOs in conflict areas marked by the preference given to anti-terrorist laws over IHL.
  • Fight against impunity for attacks on humanitarian actors. In concrete terms, this means fighting against the criminalization of relief work under anti-terrorist rules and punishing the perpetrators of attacks against NGOs.

The unequal relationship between international humanitarian law and anti-terrorist law.

The unequal relationship between international humanitarian law and anti-terrorist law is based on the fact that IHL is very weakly enshrined in national law, whereas anti-terrorist law reigns supreme through the penal code and very vague definitions of crimes.

This observation, and the remedy to this situation, therefore, presupposes a political will for political action capable of strengthening and clarifying national and international law applicable to humanitarian and medical relief in counter-terrorist contexts.

To this end, we had proposed repairing an oversight on the part of the French legislator by including the reference to international humanitarian law in the French code of criminal procedure (new article 689-15). This is legally indispensable to allow humanitarian actors and judges to make use of international humanitarian law in French law in their assessment of concrete situations.

We had also proposed the inclusion in the penal code of a humanitarian clause under terrorist offenses to specify that these offenses did not apply to impartial humanitarian action carried out in countries in conflict, in accordance with international humanitarian law (new article 421-2-9). The proposal for an ad hoc decision or directive from the Minister of Justice leaves us open to the arbitrariness of the case by case which can in no way guarantee our impartiality, neutrality and security in the areas where we act.

In spite of our requests, contributions and expectations, there has therefore been no debate or legal progress on these concrete topics. The political-bureaucratic blindness continues with a new ordinance asking humanitarian organizations to sort the beneficiaries of humanitarian and medical relief according to anti-terrorist criteria.

On a few topics, the French President’s proposals will have a positive impact for NGOs.

On a few typically political subjects, the French President’s proposals will have a positive impact for French NGOs. One thinks in particular of the welcome announcement concerning the increase in the financial volume of aid provided directly by France or through special drawing rights. The proposal to create the position of Special Correspondent to the UN Secretary General for the preservation of humanitarian space will also, if adopted at the UN level, give more visibility to these issues and test the multilateral consensus or dissensus surrounding them.

At this time of assessment, it is still difficult for us to know whether the different ministerial hierarchies have shown too much caution and have not been able to propose to the President of the Republic the concrete and strong political-legal decisions that we were expecting. It is also possible that the President preferred to postpone these decisions in order to ensure that they are effectively carried by NGOs, administrations and parliamentarians. On the NGO side, we have no choice but to continue to ask for what may seem superfluous in Paris but is vital in our fields of action.

Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, International Legal Director of Médecin Sans Frontières

Who is Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier ?

Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, a Doctor of Law and magistrate, is the director of the international legal department of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

She is the author of numerous books and articles on humanitarian action, humanitarian law and international justice, including the Dictionnaire pratique du droit humanitaire (ed. La Découverte, 4th edition 2013), translated into eight languages.

She is involved in defining the rights and responsibilities of MSF’s humanitarian and medical actions in crisis and armed conflict situations concerning general relief to populations and medical assistance to the wounded, sick and victims of violence.

Over the past 30 years, she has contributed to the development of MSF’s policies, practices and public statements on humanitarian action, the defence of humanitarian space, access to victims, the protection of populations from mass crimes, and issues related to international military interventions and international criminal justice.

Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier is a lecturer at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, the Institut Catholique de Paris and the Sorbonne. She is also a member of the editorial board of the International Review of the Red Cross and of the editorial board of the historical studies published on MSF’s major “Public Speaking engagements”.