Doctors Without Borders, the rapid-reaction group of medical volunteers who have championed and led humanitarian interventions around the world, won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize today.
The organization, founded by French physicians in 1971, was recognized for its illustrious history of forging into zones of catastrophe and carnage to deliver care, despite severe logistic and political complications.
The Nobel organization in Oslo said Doctors Without Borders "has adhered to the fundamental principle that all disaster victims, whether the disaster is natural or human in origin, have a right to professional assistance."
Philippe Biberson, president of the group's French chapter, said he hoped the Nobel Prize was recognizing humanitarian work that is "totally independent of political and military influences [and] a revolt against injustice and persecution."
The peace prize is worth nearly $1 million this year and will be presented Dec. 10 at formal ceremonies in Oslo.
Volunteers from Doctors Without Borders, which officially goes by its French name Medecins Sans Frontieres, have been on the scene most recently in East Timor and Kosovo, treating the sick and undernourished among the massive refugee populations. But there is scarcely a wretched corner of the world the medical personnel -- often known as "French doctors" -- has not served. They now hail from four dozen countries and adhere to 20 national chapters overseen by an international umbrella organization.
Underwritten almost entirely by private donations of time and money, the organization has matured into a well-oiled global army of 2,000 physicians and medical personnel working in 80 countries. Among its various projects, Doctors Without Borders has responded to cholera in Senegal, AIDS in Vietnam, floods in the Philippines, war in Chechnya, land mines in Mozambique, dirty water in Peru and even drug addiction in France.
The organization symbolically came of age earlier this year when one of its founders, Bernard Kouchner, was appointed the top U.N. coordinator for Kosovo. The outsider status that once gave Doctors Without Borders a swashbuckling reputation had given way to ultimate insider status, the job of managing the international community's massive peace and reconstruction effort in the Yugoslav province.
The Kosovo crisis was a reminder of how nongovernmental organizations broadly, and humanitarian relief groups specifically, have come to drive the agenda of traditional diplomacy.
Doctors Without Borders, like other influential nongovernmental groups, has worked effectively through the media to bring certain stories of atrocities and suffering to the public's attention. They then have served as instruments of peacemaking by providing independent delivery of humanitarian assistance.
The Nobel Prize recognized that new reality in citing the group for helping "to form bodies of public opinion opposed to violations and abuses of power." That was a diplomatic allusion to the organization's outspokenness, notably its fearlessness in attacking governments responsible for suffering or impeding medical treatment.
"It's not a normal organization," said Alain Destexhe, a Belgian physician and senator who once managed the international Doctors Without Borders body. "Its business combines medical relief with what you might call witness -- testifying to major violations of human rights that they encounter in their work."
As an early example, Destexhe cited the organization's denunciation of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan two decades ago. "[The organization's] doctors were the only witnesses to what was going on in some villages -- remote places that were a five-day donkey ride from anywhere," he said.
Doctors Without Borders also has proved willing and able to cut through bureaucratic inertia or political hostility to get assistance to victims. Part of its creed is to provide confidential medical care to victims, many of whom may be -- or feel -- in jeopardy by authorities.
"Every time we intervene, we're caught in a political web," said Rony Brauman, a former president, in a French newspaper interview last year. But the group has not shied from taking positions that some other humanitarian organizations consider too political.
In 1994, for example, Doctors Without Borders was among the first to call the massacre of roughly 500,000 people in Rwanda a case of genocide -- and to urge Western military intervention to stop it.
Doctors Without Borders' candor and independence distinguished it at its origins from the International Red Cross, considered by a younger generation of medical workers as unduly timid in its dealings with sovereign states. Thus the name the upstarts chose: "Without Borders." The International Committee of the Red Cross won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1944 and 1963.
Doctors Without Borders was formed by a group of rebellious young doctors, veterans of the 1968 student uprising in France, who become disillusioned with their Red Cross volunteer work in Biafra, the secessionist region of Nigeria. The new organization sent its first teams of doctors in 1971 and 1972 to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to help flood victims, and to Nicaragua to aid earthquake survivors.
The organization has even grown enough to undergo mitosis. In 1979, its leadership was split over a plan Kouchner advanced to rescue Vietnamese boat people adrift in the China Sea. Others believed the move would lure a larger flotilla of boat people to their doom. Kouchner lost and led a faction away to found Doctors of the World, a viable smaller version of the mother organization.
"It began as a medical intervention," said Kouchner, responding to the Nobel news in Kosovo today. "But it has also been a medical adventure and a political adventure. It has been a fight against narrow-mindedness and ruthlessness, torture, oppression and gross violations of human rights."
Correspondent Peter Finn in Pristina, Yugoslavia, contributed to this report.