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Out of Africa

Is taking kids out of Darfur heroism or kidnapping?

WASHINGTON--On Oct. 25, nine French citizens, seven Spaniards and a Belgian were arrested after the French charity Zoe's Arc tried to airlift 103 children out of eastern Chad, near the border with Sudan, claiming they were orphans from Darfur. The children were going to be delivered to host families in France. Eleven of the detainees have since been freed, in part thanks to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but the rest face kidnapping charges in Chad. The case has raised moral and legal questions regarding the right of humanitarian interference by outsiders in a sovereign nation.        

Zoe's Arc argues that the children came into Chad through that country's porous eastern border, that the parents agreed to part with the kids, and that Chad's unsavory legal system had to be bypassed in order to save their lives. The Chadian authorities argue that the children were not orphans, that the parents thought the kids were being taken to domestic locations to be educated, and that the airlift was illegal.

European public opinion has overwhelmingly condemned the French charity and denounced what it calls imperialistic nongovernmental organizations that, oftentimes backed by powerful governments, violate the laws of weaker countries under the guise of humanitarian efforts.

The charity's actions do seem questionable--many of the kids were not orphans and they allegedly were bandaged so as to appear injured--but I would suggest it is immoral to use this case as grounds to disqualify all others when it comes to international humanitarian actions by private parties. 

What would have happened if those families had known that their children were being sent to France? And what if, after trying to act legally, Zoe's Arc had been prevented by Chad's tyrannical government from taking the children and they had faced imminent danger? Those who maintain that even under such circumstances a European charity would not be right to violate the norms of a different country live in a fantasy world. What they are in effect saying is that the parents should hand the patria potestas (parental custodianship) over to a government even if that decision entails possible slavery or death.

Invoking international law, as many critics of private humanitarian efforts are doing in Europe, doesn't necessarily help: While it is true that The Hague Convention of 1993 states that national solutions take preference over international ones, the Geneva Convention of 1951 justifies saving children under threat. The issue goes beyond international law. It is, first and foremost, a moral issue.

 History offers many examples of parents who saved their children by sending them abroad with foreign help in violation of national laws. At the beginning of the Cuban revolution, thousands of families, terrified that the government would take custodianship of their children, sent them abroad illegally through "Operation Peter Pan," an effort that involved the Catholic Church and allowed about 15,000 Cuban minors to settle in the United States. Then there was Irena Sendler's heroic smuggling of hundreds of Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 after she persuaded their parents to accept the fact that they would have to adopt Catholic identities in order to be saved. She worked with a British organization. Was that imperialism, baby snatching and fraud, or humanitarianism at its best?

Chad is a dictatorship whose president removed constitutional term limits a couple of years ago; the groups that fought a civil war until recently are still very active; thousands of people fleeing the Sudanese conflict pour in through the border every week. The fear of death or starvation for the children in Chad's eastern border region is a very real one. If the parents had been willing to send their kids to France to be protected by host families, would it have been wrong to organize a discreet charter flight to take them out of the country simply because the Chadian government thinks that sending a kid to be raised in France smacks of colonialism?

Europeans disgusted by the actions of Zoe's Arc need to look more carefully at the moral implications of what they are pressing their governments to do--i.e., ban all humanitarian efforts not sanctioned by the authorities of the country where the problem resides--if they don't want to become imperialists of sorts themselves by denying African kids in danger of death a chance to survive.    

Alvaro Vargas Llosa, author of "Liberty for Latin America," is the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute. His e-mail address is AVLlosa(at)

(c) 2007, The Washington Post Writers Group    

By Alvaro Vargas Llosa