All The More Reason

Bernard Kouchner
May 16, 2007, 5:53 pm
Filed under: Bernard Kouchner, Euston Manifesto, French Politics, Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy was invested as President of France today. The grandiose, red-carpeted transfer of power, including, we are told, the handing over of the codes for the French nuclear arsenal, went off without a hitch. Like the previous ceremony in 1995 –where Mitterrand retired and was replaced by Chirac – the event had the air of a stable and orderly transition from one generation to the next; a sense heightened by the fact that Chirac has a good foot in height on Sarkozy, and insisted on patting him paternally on the shoulder as they climbed the steps of the Elysee Palace.

Predictably, now that the war is won, the talk is of nothing but peace. ‘In the service of France, there are no factions’, announced President Sarkozy from behind a freshly sawn-off lectern; a statement borne more, one suspects, out of hope than expectation, and only slightly undermined by the fact that he has just emerged as the victor in one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in French history. Pompous fatuities like this are de rigueur on such occasions.

Given the emptiness of his pillow-talk to the French nation, it is fitting that one of Sarkozy’s first ostensibly unifying gestures has, in fact, managed to stir up the pot. His appointment of socialist Bernard Kouchner to the post of Foreign Minister has rubbed salt into the still weeping wounds of the PS, whilst irritating several important members of the President’s own UMP, each of whom had more than half an eye on the post themselves.

Elevating ourselves, as we must, above the petty considerations of party politics, this bold appointment augurs well for Sarkozy’s foreign policy. Monsieur Kouchner is a rare beast, one on the verge of extinction in this country, if not his own: namely, a left-winger in favour of le droit – or, in the words of his seminal 1987 book on the subject, le devoird’ingerence. This right – or duty – to interfere in a country’s affairs in the event of a humanitarian catastrophe must be exercised by states if, as he attests, ‘the inhumanity of man belongs to all mankind’.  

His credentials for the post are impeccable: a former Red Cross doctor, Kouchner is a founding member of Medecins sans Frontieres, whose heroic volunteers risk life and limb to bring humanitarian aid to victims of war and repression. Forged in the crucible of the Biafran civil war by a vanguard of French doctors, MSF and Kouchner (who parted company from the organisation in 1980) have been thoroughly admirable and consistent champions of humanitarian intervention; whether in Chechyna, the Balkans or, most recently, Iraq.

Of course, governments have not always heeded their calls – most shamefully in Rwanda, in 1994, when the country imploded and a million Tutsis were butchered. But when, in Kosovo, they did do so, Kouchner was there to help reconstruct the province’s civil administration as leader of the United Nation’s Interim authority. In his own country, he has long spoken out against his government’s -particularly the late President Chirac’s – affection for corrupt African despots; he once called President Mobutu ‘a walking bank safe in a leopard skin hat’ as his country’s troops were helping to crush anti-Mobutu rebels.

In the spirit of the French left’s noble internationalist traditions, Kouchner is unembarrassed to quote Francois Mitterrand maxim that “the sovereignty of states ceases when non-assistance to persons in danger begins”. He is no unilateralist, but unlike Chirac, de Villepin et al., he is certainly not an unqualified multilateralist. The Frenchman in the old joke who, upon hearing a plan, remarks, ‘I can see that it works in practice, but does it work in theory?’ would receive short shrift from Kouchner.. “Yes, to a stable world. Yes, to the United Nations system.”, he told an audience in a speech entitled The Future of Humanitarianism. “But we must stop this theoretical talk as soon as oppression begins and people in danger are appealing to us because their lives are in danger. We must listen carefully for that call.” At a time when the future of humanitarianism remains uncertain, Kouchner is the kind of oracle that we need.

Michael P


3 Comments so far
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Interesting stuff. It took me a minute to recompose myself after reading the line about a “freshly sawn–off lectern”. One idea I’ve been kicking around for awhile but for which I have yet to flesh out properly is related to your discussion about Kouchner’s leftism. One way to see the fate of man is the debate between our civilised and base selves. We all share certain base traits, such as how we breathe, eat and sleep. We do not all share the exact same cultures or traditions. Still, is there a way that one could argue that once a state fails in its contract to satisfy certain basic codes of civilisation it forfeits its sovereignty?

That may sound a little odd since often people talk about human rights – which may attach a responsibility more to our humanness (or base). Still, I do think there’s something to be said about the idea that the only reason why we accept national borders and the sheer idea of nationhood is that on some level we feel it’s a better way to live than simply tribal warfare or animalistic anarchy.

I’ll try one last time to articulate this and then I’ll give it a rest as I am tired and simply doing my best to put this down. The idea of being a citizen allows us access to infrastructure and resources, such as hospitals and schools, that we otherwise would be forbidden to us. If a state, instead of attempting to provide these basic tenents of civilisation instead wishes to practice genocide against its own people, then does it not forfeit its right to sovereignty? At that point, does not the call for humanity ring louder than the respect for nationhood? I realise that this is not always a clear case, and it also requires one to have more respect for one’s own nationhood, paradoxically, and that even this may hold a bitter taste in the mouth of some who do not consider themselves necessarily patriotic.

And yet, I don’t feel that this debate is even happening, let alone knowing where people stand on the issue. I’ll leave it at that, and hope that it’ll start a discussion which will better elucidate some of these ideas (if indeed they are worth pursuing).

Comment by J.S.

What you have articulated is really at the heart of the current debate about humanitarian interventionism.

Kofi Annan tried to push the ‘responsibility to protect’ as a norm of international law. This responsibility would be incumbent on all states and, in effect, would mandate the international community to come to the aid of people who are either being deliberately harmed by their own government, contrary to international law, or who are being harmed by non-state actors in situations where their own governments are either unwilling or unable to come to their assistance.

For me, the philosophical underpinnings of this are as follows. Sovereignty rests with the people. In a country with a democratic, or representative, government the ‘State’, as a legal entity, has the right to exercise this sovereignty on the people’s behalf. Where the relationship between government and governed breaks down, it forfeits the right to the protection that ‘nationhood’ gives it (i.e. the right for its domestic affairs not to be interfered in).

I think we’re on more or less the same page here; the idea of nationhood and sovereignty as an absolutist concept is irreconcilable with a respect for human dignity. Too often, the veil of state sovereignty simply acts as a cloak for government-sponsored gangsterism.

Comment by Michael P

Hitchens has a piece on Kouchner here.

Comment by J.S.

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