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Bernard Kouchner, rebel with a cause
by Jean-François Berger

In 1968, Dr. Kouchner worked with the ICRC as a member of the French Red Cross (FRC) medical team in Awo-Omama, Biafra, Nigeria. From left to right: Dr. Kouchner, Dr. Caroli, Dr. Max Récamier (FRC) and Dr. Rio Spirgi (ICRC).

Dr. Bernard Kouchner, French Minister of Health, leaves no one indifferent. A founding member of Médecins Sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde, he is a pioneer of the right of intervention and actively seeks the media spotlight. From April 2000 to April 2001, he served as the UN Special Representative in Kosovo. He shares his impressions with Red Cross, Red Crescent.

What was the hardest part of your mission in Kosovo?
The biggest difficulty was the protection of minorities, firstly that of the Serb minority. We had neither a police force nor a judicial mechanism suited to the situation. There was no order and therefore no law and order.

Our main mistake was to assume that just because we had intervened, everything was going to change miraculously and that human rights would be applied overnight in a region where they had not been applied for 12 centuries. At first, you have to stick to quite a simple legal content and make it clear to those who won't respect it that they will suffer the consequences. For that you have to have a police force, which I didn't at the beginning! Now there are nearly 4,000 police officers.

How do you think things will evolve for these minorities, in particular the Serbs and the gypsies (Roma)?
There is still animosity, even if there are fewer murders than there were a year ago. It would therefore be illusory to expect a mass return of the Serbs while the security conditions are not good. We must also wait for the Kosovars to nominate a government. The Serbs, from the Yugoslav Prime Minister Djindjic down, understand that it is an issue that can only be resolved in the long term. As for the gypsies, their plight is more problematic and tragic, for they are the butt of everyone's hatred, including the Serbs.

So the plan to foster multi-ethnic harmony has fallen by the wayside?
Unfortunately, people have a problem with living in a multi-ethnic environment and we cannot force them to love one another. The massacres of ethnic Albanians were followed by other massacres, albeit on a lesser scale, prompted by the desire for revenge. Even so, before the intervention by NATO and the UN, the two main communities were not living happily side by side, and people from either side of the ethnic divide no longer spoke to each other after the suppression of Kosovar autonomy by Milosevic in 1989.

How have things changed for the Albanian population in Kosovo?
For the majority of Kosovars, it is like night and day between how things were and how things are today, since that majority is now living in peace.

With hindsight, do you have any regrets?
Of course. First, because we did not realize immediately that the protection of the Serbs was an integral part of our mission when we came to assist the Kosovar Albanians. For that, we would have needed a very different system of law and order from the one we had envisaged. We were wrong to expect an immediate restoration of the Albanian judicial system. What was needed was an international judicial body during the transition. We should have instituted a state of emergency, but who would have enforced it? Not the army. That being said, it was the first time that the UN had assumed such an undertaking -administering a territory while restoring security.

Pristina, September 2000:
Dr. Kouchner, head of the UN delegation to Kosovo.


Express Bio

Bernard Kouchner was born in Avignon in 1939 and qualified as a gastroenterologist. He was an active member of the French Communist Party, from which he was expelled in 1966. In 1968, he took part in the ICRC operation in Biafra as a member of the French Red Cross medical team. He pub-licly condemned the massacre of Biafrans, notably in an article in Le Monde.

This first intervention, motivated by a duty to speak out, led him to found Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in 1971 with a few veterans of Biafra. Following personal differences, Kouchner left MSF to create Médecins du Monde in 1979. Leading a campaign for international recognition of the right of intervention, he became a member of the French government in 1988 and Minister for Health and Humanitarian Action in 1992, before being elected a member of the European Parliament in 1994. Since his return from Kosovo in April 2001, he has served as French Minister of Health.


Do you think the lessons learned will some day be of service?
In future, it would be a good idea to have a temporary international mechanism to dispense justice. But nothing is ever as you imagine and often you only discover things as you go along.

What is the ideal status for Kosovo?
The ideal status is peace! In a few years' time, there may be a regional solution for those countries of the former Yugoslavia that have an affinity and economic ties.

What's your assessment of the humanitarian action carried out by the numerous humanitarian actors and agencies in Kosovo?
The big agencies were immensely useful, in particular the UNHCR and ICRC. The latter played a vital role in tackling the issue of the missing. Of the some 500 humanitarian agencies present, let's just say that if half of them served a purpose, that's already being generous! Where the agencies did prove indispensable was in the reception of the more than 800,000 refugees, none of whom died. The humanitarian agencies that resented the role of the military were mistaken, for without the military the camps could not have been built. These agencies may be in charge of humanitarian action, but not of humanity!

The right of intervention which you hold so dear took a significant step forward in the Balkans. What was the impact?
We succeeded. The ethnic cleansing was stopped. Milosevic is in prison and Serbia is now a democracy. We intervened within a country's borders, that's what's known as the right of intervention. Everyone protested, but it worked.
Intervention is selective and is still driven by political and economic factors...

Humanitarian intervention is not accepted everywhere, but the concept is gaining ground. Moreover, it is not always the right solution. The right of intervention, as I see it, should be preventive, but we are far from achieving that at the moment. I would have liked to have intervened in Kosovo back in 1992. We got involved belatedly in Bosnia (1995) and three weeks later the war was over. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Don't multinational military interventions following grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights play into the hands of separatist forces?
Whoever thinks that is mistaken. In general, it is not the fire brigade that starts the fire, even if some firemen may be pyromaniacs. The worst thing is not to intervene. Happiness is not the business of politics but unhappiness is! Thus, when there are massive violations, you have to intervene, or else people die. Intervention aims to separate belligerents, not cause confrontation. The right of intervention - or the right of humanitarian intervention as Kofi Annan calls it - has proved its worth both in East Timor and in Kosovo. Clearly, here is a phenomenon and an international mechanism that would be strengthened by these experiences.


A hundred years ago, Henry Dunant received the Nobel peace prize. How does he inspire you today?
Henry Dunant was a rebel. You need them in the Red Cross! He was someone who acted outside the law, who created the law - international humanitarian law. And when you want to establish a law, such as the right of intervention, you begin by being outside the law. Dunant was an outstanding figure. I have nothing but goodwill towards the organization he created. It is useful as it is, but it needs reform. In any case, in Kosovo it was tremendously effective.

Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent.

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