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
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
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.
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 is ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red
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