The escalating dispute between the government of the Netherlands and the international medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), or MSF, constitutes another victory for the Russian secret police and a defeat for civilians in the North Caucasus and other hot spots dependent on international humanitarian organizations. With the Dutch Foreign Ministry now filing a formal court case against MSF for repayment of the ransom which was transmitted through the FSB for the release of an MSF hostage, the FSB can now take satisfaction in seeing two of its least favorite institutions fighting each other.
Among Western European governments, the Dutch government has one of the better records in working for human-rights reforms in the former Soviet Union—though one must admit that most of those governments have set a rather low standard for comparison. MSF, which has worked heroically in Chechnya while other humanitarian groups have withdrawn, now faces the grim likelihood that it will have even less help from Western governments if another of its employees should be kidnapped. The real villains in the piece—the FSB’s contacts who organized Arjan Erkel’s kidnapping and extorted the ransom for his release—will remain invisible and unpunished, and the FSB will almost certainly do nothing to change that.
Another sad result of the controversy is that Erkel himself, according to a June 16 broadcast on Radio Netherlands, now calls his former employer’s attitude “lamentable” and says he will no longer work for MSF.
In a June 15 statement that combined strikingly harsh rhetoric with a glaring lack of specific details, the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it will be taking “legal action” to reclaim the money, which it said had been “advanced by the Ministry to ensure the release of Arjan Erkel.” The statement said the Ministry “has always acted under the assumption that MSF is a serious organization and that it would respect the agreements made in this matter.” “Unfortunately that has proved not to be the case,” it added. “The Ministry also regrets the fact that MSF has made all kinds of inaccurate announcements in the media…”
From that wording a disinterested reader would expect the Ministry to provide specific details about just which statements made by MSF are “inaccurate” and just how they are inaccurate. For the most part, such details were not forthcoming.
For example, the Ministry’s statement claimed: “MSF’s allegations that the Ministry conducted the negotiations on Arjan Erkel’s release are untrue. MSF used an intermediary to negotiate on its behalf with the kidnappers, and the necessary arrangements were set down in a contract with the ‘Veterans’.” [The latter reference is apparently to the Veterans of the KGB, an ostensibly private organization with FSB connections which claimed credit for Erkel’s release. See Chechnya Weekly, June 2.] But to deny that the Ministry conducted such negotiations while admitting that the Ministry authorized an intermediary to negotiate on its behalf is self-contradictory.
The Netherlands Foreign Ministry statement went on to claim that “a representative of MSF Switzerland was involved in these negotiations in Moscow,” adding that “[h]e didn’t just follow what was going on, but was present when Arjan Erkel was released.” But again, the specific details provided are not sufficient to support the Ministry’s generalization. If the MSF representative’s involvement was limited to being present when Erkel was released, it would seem that he was indeed not involved in the negotiations that led to that release.
The Ministry’s next paragraph was also evasive, stating: “[T]he question of a ransom was also raised in these negotiations; it is a matter on which MSF has made public statements. MSF is wrong to allege that the Dutch and Russian governments bear sole responsibility for the safety of MSF staff. From the start, it was clear that MSF also bears responsibility for the staff in its employ. There has never been any misunderstanding about this between the Ministry and MSF.” Thus the first sentence implied that no ransom had in fact been paid, but the remainder of the paragraph avoided that subject.
In its own press release of June 15, MSF accused the Dutch government of “even requesting that the payment [i.e., the payment which the government sought from MSF] be reimbursed in cash to avoid public scrutiny.” MSF stated that it “cannot take responsibility for an arrangement it was not involved in and for which it did not negotiate the terms.”
MSF went on to state: “Arjan Erkel’s kidnapping was among the longest of any humanitarian aid worker in the Caucasus. There is no doubt that the length of Arjan’s detention reflects a failure by all parties involved…” That wording indirectly suggests that MSF itself admits that it shared in that failure—but without stating just how.
MSF reiterated earlier accusations that the Russian government had failed to meet its international commitments “for the protection of humanitarian aid workers on its soil,” and added that “throughout the crisis the Dutch government consistently failed to address the Russian Federation concerning Arjan’s case with the political attention and urgency it demanded.” The medical charity stated that “more than two weeks prior to Arjan’s release, the Dutch government severed all official contact with MSF and threatened to hold MSF publicly responsible should he be killed.”
MSF further stated: “On April 8, MSF was informed at the last minute of an arrangement that the Dutch government had negotiated. As had been the case throughout the 20 months, MSF’s only priority was to see Arjan released. The senior MSF representative agreed that the Dutch government should go ahead. However, MSF gave no commitment on financial matters and stipulated that this would be discussed at a later stage.” But a close reading of that passage raises a suspicion that MSF led the Foreign Ministry to believe that it would indeed be reimbursed—deliberately leaving the issue vague.
“In recent public declarations,” stated MSF, “the Dutch government has presented this situation as a straightforward business transaction whereby they made ‘an advance’ to MSF. This is untrue. MSF did not receive or borrow any money from the Dutch government and was not involved in the negotiations.”
On the other hand, the MSF statement acknowledged that “faced with political inaction and passivity, MSF also pursued other avenues, including hiring private individuals and placing money at their disposal in an attempt to obtain Arjan’s release.” This wording implies that MSF would have been willing for some of that money to be used as a ransom payment.
MSF declared that it “would welcome an independent public investigation into the management and resolution of this kidnapping, providing full transparency to the public.”