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2 June, 2012  ▪  Zhanna Bezpiatchuk

A Cure for Foreign Affairs

Bernard Kouchner, former French Foreign Minister: "If you want to live in a better world, it's all possible in the EU"

U.W.: You are famous for your concept of humanitarian intervention.

The right to interfere. Now this is not only my preoccupation but the UN also wants to stop massacres before they actually begin. This is a problem. It means preventative action. But it has never been real preventative action except in the case of Macedonia.

U.W.: When the Georgian-Russian conflict flared in 2008, Russians called their invasion “peace enforcement”. Is it true that prime-minister Vladimir Putin told you at that time that they were in fact using your concept?

He said so, but it was not true that it was my concept. The right to intervene must come from the international community. And normally we see South Ossetia as a Russian preoccupation. So, they were alone. And President Sarkozy and I were very active at that time. We rushed there and I saw that it was useful to tell people not only in Tbilisi but also in Moscow to stop. So, this peace enforcement was a sort of intervention. We called upon the Georgian people to stop bombing the town of Tskhinvali. Afterwards, I met refugees myself. I went to the other side of the Caucasus before Sarkozy and met with refugees, the Russians and former Russians. They were suffering. I invented this universal concept of the right to interfere now as responsibility to protect. That’s very important. It should be prevention; it is not about going to war. It is to avoid the possibility of war but in the name of the international community, in the name of UN, always. And Russians did not do that.

U.W.: Then what do you think about the situation in Syria? Should the West interfere since the human massacre has been going on there for a long time already?

This is the same case as Libya. Unfortunately, it started completely the same. The Russians and the Chinese are opposed. You can’t act like in Iraq, but we should go through the UN Security Council. And we went there with regard to Libya. But even with all our efforts it was not possible to get a positive vote on Syria. Why? Because of Tibet on the Chinese side and Chechnya and other Caucasus republics on the Russian side. And I blame the Russians and the Chinese for not accepting the need to participate in stopping the massacre.

It's not a funny game. It is always very difficult to convince people. And we did it more or less because today the Syrian government signed a document to give freedom of movement to UN observers inside its country. This is a very theoretical signature as the bombing is still going on. So, what then? It was not enough, but it is better than not doing anything. We’ll see if by chance we can reach the suffering population with some means and protection.

U.W.: But do you not think that when we get full information about the scale of the tragedy in Homs, that democratic countries might feel sorry for missing time and not interfering? In 1932-1933 when the Famine in Ukraine was taking place, the West knew that something terrible was going on, but it found numerous reasons to do nothing. This is different, of course, but the logic is similar.

But we are trying to do something in terms of humanitarian involvement. That was Stalin. And eight million died. I'm sorry, but I hadn't been born yet and hadn't invented the right to interfere. But yes, we remember those massacres and famines. I was not inventing my concept from afar but I was in the middle of it and saw the blood. I was a medical doctor, a surgeon, so I know what I am talking about. And we are trying. Let me tell you something. First, there is much less war than 25 years ago, and it’s important that two blocs are not confronting each other as they used to. There was the massacre of Hama committed by the father of Bashar Assad in Syria when 20,000–25,000 people died; and we did nothing. The Americans, the British — no-one. Now we are trying to do something. I know it is not enough. In Georgia in 2008, we succeeded in stopping the invasion. But the occupation is still there. And I’ve been negotiating in Geneva for years. The Russians signed the document but they did not respect it at all, just like the Syrians do not respect their document.

U.W.: In 2008, France played a proactive role in settling the Georgian-Russian conflict. Then it seemed that the intensity of its foreign policy in the region waned. In 2011, Paris revitalized its role as an active geopolitical player in relation to Libya. It looks like this support comes in waves, as if there is a special focus on crisis management.

We were active, yes. Before this was the time of president Jacques Chirac. It was the end of his second mandate, and he was not so active. That’s true. Now we are coming back to some activity. But you know that as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, we used to play such a role. We were very active in setting up the European area. We were very active when Nicolas Sarkozy came to power and when he asked me to be involved as a foreign minister in European affairs. We tried to do our best. We were not always excellent because after starting, we were too much in favour of Bashar Assad and Gaddafi, etc. So, I protested. I was not a president. I was just a foreign minister. But we were as active as possible in Lebanon. We succeeded with the Doha agreement. Everybody was trying to make some sort of peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis and to set up a Palestinian state. We were very active all over. We were very active in Africa. We succeeded in pushing the international community to organize fair and transparent elections and control the vote in Guinea where there had been a dictatorship for 55 years. We were also active in China and we were also negotiating with Russia. We have to tackle these issues with all the responsibility we can because it was ridiculous not to be on the inside and yet send soldiers every time to every mission. So, we did well. We tried to be useful and play our role.

U.W.: Can we expect new activity from France in Eastern Europe or the Caucasus, for instance?

We can’t do everything at the same time. But we were active also in Europe, not just in Central and Eastern Europe. We were very active in Greece. We were very active, in my opinion, too much against Turkey. As for the Caucasus, we were involved in Georgia. And we are still involved. And we can talk about the Caucasus and the Black Sea region. France can’t take the world in its hands. We are not the biggest country in the world. We did exactly what we were able to do.

U. W.: When countries like France or Germany do not pursue active foreign policy in Eastern Europe or are ready to concede it to someone else, Russia comes and restores its influence. This is actually going on again right now and Ukraine is in the middle of it.

Yes, absolutely. Russia is our neighbour. We have to maintain and establish good relations with Russia. This is an obvious thing. Were we too much in favour of Dmitry Medvedev who at the beginning of his mandate looked like he was more of an open person than Putin? From my point as a foreign minister I believe that I was not totally, but partially, wrong. Medvedev was not playing an important role, but in terms of social involvement, human rights, etc, he was more open. Apart from that, now we are strongly against the Russian position on Syria. President Sarkozy made a strong statement on this. We are not always in agreement like on Georgia. Was it possible to start a war against the Russian army? No. We have to succeed with diplomatic language, by sort of pressuring international involvement. This is not black or white. It is impossible that way. It is very easy to demonstrate in the street. I have done so personally thousands of times. And so, what then? Were we supposed to start a war against Russia because they invaded a little part of the little country South Ossetia? No. We were strongly against it, and we did our best, and we were sort of a good player. But, of course, we have to convince them to withdraw their troops.

U.W.: Can the project of a United Europe be finished and complete without Ukraine?

No. But you have to fulfil the conditions. It depends on democracy in Ukraine. I’m very happy to talk about that. It has to do with the cost of the large expansion we committed to with the Eastern European countries. It was a bit too fast for many our citizens in the 17 EU countries, and now there are 27 of us. It was very hard. We don’t have to rush. We are also experiencing a strong financial crisis. Do we consider a United Europe to be a sort of garden, a particular place in the world that we don’t have to enlarge? Or do we consider it to be an example for the rest of the world? In this case of course, Ukraine may come, too. Why not? But this is impossible right now, because they are not democratic. In time they might change. Turkey was a problem. I’m in favour of Turkey becoming a member of the EU. And Sarkozy, my president, was not in favour. My answer is that it is up to you. It will depend on you. Certainly, the best way to join the EU is to prove that you are with us in terms of democracy, human rights, the rule of law and so on.

U.W.: But do you see such things in Ukraine now? Tymoshenko is in prison, Lutsenko is in prison… And I can keep counting…

I am not Ukrainian. It’s up to you to answer. Is the Ukrainian government on the right path? No. And we are very tough against that. We can accept new members. We can’t accept all the demands. I was a UN representative in Kosovo. Croatia, Serbia and other Balkan countries were bleeding. Today Croatia has been accepted. Serbia has been accepted as a candidate. And the rest will follow, including Kosovo. If you want to set up a better democracy and join a peaceful world, you can do it inside the EU because there is no possibility of any big fights. Honestly, it would be very difficult. We must all more or less talk and agree on common policies – both economic and foreign.


Bernard Kouchner was born on 1 November 1939 in Avignon. He studied gastroenterology at Sorbonne, working as a physician at Biafra, a self-proclaimed republic in Nigeria that existed from 1967 to 1970, and in Lebanon during the Civil War. In 1971, Mr. Kouchner founded Doctoers Without Borders, leaving it in 1980 to set up Physicians for Peace. In 1987, he published his book titled Le Devoir d'Ingerence (The Obligation to Interfere). In 1988, he started his career at the socialist government and entered their party. In 1997-1999 and 2001-2002 Mr. Kouchner was Health Care Minister at Lionel Jospin's Cabinet. Over 1999-2001, he was the UN's Special Representative in Kosovo. In May 2007-November 2010, he served as Foreign Affairs Minister at two cabinets headed by François Fillon. 

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