Attention and Atrocities

Every year, Canada’s Médecins Sans Frontières (AKA Doctors Without Borders / MSF) meets for their Annual General Assembly. I know about this because two years ago their topic was “Is MSF missing the technology boat?” to which I was invited to speak about Geeks Without Bounds and community technology projects with the talk “Technology as a Means to Equality” (video broken because of issues with GWOB YouTube account, and with my apologies). I went back this year because my organizational crush on them maintains, and because Aspiration (my employer for teh past 2 years, a technology capacity building organization for nonprofits) has been working on an ecosystem map of the digital response space. The real-world and values-driven experience of MSF provided valuable insights and data points for that map, and so I went seeking their input. I spent the first day at their Logistics Day hearing about 3D printing for manufacturing and prosthetics, telemedicine, and use of smart phones. My second day was for the Annual General Assembly again, this time as an attendee. The first half of the day focused on how to deal with the bombings of hospitals in war zones, the second half on mental health for patients and for field practitioners. I’d like to speak to you here about the first half of that day, how it overlaps with things I’ve learned here at the Center for Civic Media, things I was reminded of during bunnie and Snowden’s announcement at Forbidden Research, and things which have sadly continued to be relevant.


There are certain things that humanity has learned we find untenable from past experience. Some of these lessons are most notably codified in the Geneva Conventions, ratified by the UN and its membership. Among other things, the Geneva Conventions cover how noncombatants should not be involved in conflict, the right to bring someone to trial for war crimes, and the right to access to medical treatment. This last is of most concern of MSF, namely in that more and more hospitals in war zones are being bombed. These bombings are happening without the external accountability which the Geneva Conventions and the UN Security Council claim to uphold (then again, 4 of the 5 permanent seats on the UN Security Council are held by countries linked to these bombings, so that’s maybe a conflict of interest and integrity). So, maybe this is not a system of accountability we can necessarily depend on any longer. How can the bombings be stopped? Who can (and should) hold those doing the bombings accountable, if not the long-standing (albeit imperfect) Geneva Convertion mechanism? MSF has been maintaining a campaign for public visibility, hoping this will lead to some level of accountability via #NotATarget.

The question that I remembered during bunnie and Snowden’s announcement at Forbidden Research was: are these individual blips of horror across many different countries, or is this a new norm? bunnie and Snowden were referring to the subtle but systemic targeting and killing of journalists. MSF panelists spoke of the picking off of hospitals in conflict zones, sometimes when nothing else around them has been attacked. There are two things at play here: a technological way to do the targeting, but also the acceptance of this happening. One speaker at MSF AGA, Marine Buissonniere, spoke to both of these points by indicating that we should be able to hold both highly contextual circumstances and overall trends in mind at the same time. Perhaps the bombing of one hospital happened in a silo of decision making for one military, but the fact that it is deemed acceptable by so many at the same time indicates a deeper shift in global cultural norms. She and the other panelists also spoke to how this is an ongoing attack on civic life, that hospitals are the last refuge in times of war, and to make them unsafe is to remove the provision of basic needs to entire regions. Whether a subtle cultural shift or a concerted effort to errode transparency, accountability, and safety; both the cases of hospital bombings and targeted journalist killings come from a similar place of disregard for human life and for accountability. It is our responsibility to hold those taking these actions accountable.

It can be difficult to understand what this sort of thing means. It is difficult to build empathy, a huge component in bringing sufficient public attention on those trampling human rights to hold them accountable. The panelists acknowledged “outrage fatigue” coupled with the failure to act from enforcement agencies and courts. When our attention wanes, so too do the mechanisms of accountability. Similar to the work already done around Media Cloud and Catherine’s work on location of the news, a question emerged: would people have cared differently if these bombings were happening a part of the world other than the Middle East and North Africa? Regardless, those perpetrating these violences are benefiting from our outrage fatigue. How can we take care of ourselves and each other while balancing our areas of influence with our areas of concern? How do we choose which actions to take?

Journalism and Medicine

This is in part why I think MSF is so amazing. They act both to respond to a basic human need (access to medical care) in places often abandonded or never paid attention to begin with, and they speak truth about the circumstances in which they do so. To publicly statewhere a hospital is both puts them in immense danger and also protects them through public outcry against that danger… but only if those outcries continue to occur. To seek justice for infractions to human rights can be seen as non-neutral, which would then put MSF deeper in harm’s way.

One way to navigate this might be divvying up parts of this ecosystem. Diederik Lohman from Human Rights Watched joined the panel to speak about documentation and accountability — documentation which MSF practitioners are not trained to create, and the creation of which might jeapordize their status as neutral parties. If instead someone from Human Rights Watch were to document, could MSF better maintain their role as a humanitarian, and therefore neutral, party?

Truth is the first casualty of war

Many of the atrocities associated with #NotATarget remain unaccounted for due to politics. But some have to do with a lack of visibility of the incidents and others of the context of the incidents. MSF often doesn’t disclose the nationalities of their clinicians as a way to emphasize that all tragedy is human tragedy, rather than allowing countries to cherry-pick reporting based on what seems connected to them. But they’re also not great at indicating how many different demographics across civilians and combattants they’ve served on a given day. The impartial nature of their service delivery is invisible to both local and international crowds. What would documentation look like which helped MSF do its job, made disruptions of that work visible in a trusted way, and wouldn’t add to the reach of the surveillance state?

I came away from both of these sessions with more questions than I arrived with, but also greater trust and awareness of the others doing work in these spaces. All my best, in solidarity and hypoallergenic kittens, for all that you do.

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