Awakening concern to prevent atrocities

A woman and child stand in front of a sea of refugee tents in a desert.

Bernard Kouchner, one of the greatest advocates for human rights, left no one unmoved when he spoke at the Alex Trebek lecture series during Alumni Week 2018. Read about his journey and his views on humanitarian intervention.

Bernard Kouchner

Bernard Kouchner

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.

Bernard Kouchner on...


Eastern Ghouta in Syria

“The massacre has happened. I hope it will stop for the several thousand people who can be saved if concrete humanitarian action is taken and if humanitarian convoys enter eastern Ghouta. But we’ve lost. Let’s drop the rhetoric. Who can stop this massacre? We didn’t stop it. Once again, we’ve been so passive.”

—, February 2018

The Myanmar situation

“It’s a slaughter [...]. Winning the Nobel prize does not make a person a model of purity, and [Aung San Suu Kyi] is persecuting Muslims.”

—, 2017

Refugee asylum in France

“Providing asylum to refugees is a moral duty and a legal obligation.”

—, 2015


“We cannot use powerlessness as an excuse. States have never had such extensive means at their disposal to intervene. There have never been as many volunteers ready to go on site. Logistical tools have never been more advanced. Information has never been as widely available.”

—Speech in Geneva, 2010


“What do you do when [...] a senseless government says ‘no’ to people who want to help? What is that ‘no’ worth? What power does it have when it’s spoken by people who are betraying their duty? What power does it have in the face of the absolute duty to provide assistance?”

— Speech in Geneva, 2010

Government responsibility

“No government has the right to take its population hostage. No government has the right to let its people die.”

— Speech in Geneva, 2010

The Responsibility to Protect

“Let’s be clear: it took years for the Responsibility to Protect concept to gain acceptance. It will take even more effort before it is effectively applied.”

— Speech in Geneva, 2010

Humanitarian intervention

“Nothing about the concept of intervention is automatic or easy. Protecting the weak [...] is a difficult and dangerous undertaking [...] It’s a necessary and imposing journey that leaves no one unscathed.”

—  “À qui appartient le malheur des autres?Imaginaire et inconscient, 2005

Human dignity

“What has not, and what will not, change, what we must see each day in a fresh light to counteract the effects of habits that lull us to sleep, the cynicism that hunts us down and the established frameworks that comfort us is the fragility of this very small yet vast thing we call ‘human dignity.’”

— Speech in Geneva, 2010

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