Awakening concern to prevent atrocities
By Sophie Coupal
Bernard Kouchner is not the type to keep silent in the face of human suffering. He has proved as much since the late 1960s, when he decided to speak out about the horrors he had witnessed as a physician participating in a humanitarian mission to Biafra. In doing so, he broke the rule of silence imposed on him by his contract with the Red Cross.
For all practical purposes, governments back then had the power of life and death over their subjects. With its hands tied by the principle of state sovereignty, the international community could not (or would not) properly intervene.
“Can we let them die simply because a border separates us from their cries?” Kouchner would ask repeatedly over the years.
Don’t let them die
Bernard Kouchner’s answer to this still burning question has always been “No.” As co-founder of Doctors Without Borders and Doctors of the World, he was one of the physicians who travelled to war-torn areas “from Lebanon to Vietnam, from El Salvador to Kurdistan, from the Middle East to Africa and from Afghanistan to the China Sea,” illegally if necessary and often risking their own lives to assist victims.
“I respect the sovereignty of states when it is respectable,” he wrote in 2005, “not when it becomes an excuse for massacring minorities. I respect the law, but sometimes, justice must come first.”
Rallying the international community
After entering French politics in the late 1980s, Kouchner was closely involved in several UN advances in the area of humanitarian action, such as guaranteeing rescuers access to victims and establishing “emergency corridors” for medical supply and food aid distribution.
As former minister of foreign affairs and senior UN representative in Kosovo, Kouchner has a reputation as a theorist and advocate of the “right of humanitarian intervention,” the politically incorrect precursor to the Responsibility to Protect, a principle of international law unanimously adopted in 2005 by the UN to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
At a time when the Responsibility to Protect is facing serious setbacks — especially in Myanmar and Syria — Bernard Kouchner continues to advocate for victims and fight indifference and inaction in an effort to raise consciousness.