It will take true bravery, as the French foreign minister has tried to show, to stand up to the junta’s horrifying intransigence
Nick Cohen The Observer, Sunday May 11 2008
The most politically successful of the French 1968 militants, whose 40th birthday we are celebrating at such length, developed a revolutionary doctrine by ignoring the revolutionaries around him.
Bernard Kouchner fitted the classic profile of a soixante-huitard. He came from a left-wing family and marched in the May demonstrations, but while his comrades blindly followed the causes of Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, Kouchner went off in an unexpected direction. He joined the Red Cross and worked as a doctor in the bitter ethnic fighting in Nigeria.
The Biafran conflict meant little to the European left of his day. No struggle between capitalism and socialism was at stake. Biafra was just a terrible civil war and the only political response Kouchner offered was a demand to ease the suffering. He developed the doctrine of ‘the humanism of bad news,’ which ignored the old utopian dreams of creating the best possible society and concentrated on the basic task of mitigating the cruelty of the worst.
Kouchner carried on organising doctors to go to the conflict zones of the world until, in 1979, he caused a sensation in France by hiring a ship to rescue the Vietnamese boat people. Ho Chi Minh’s communists had triumphed and masses of Vietnamese were taking to the sea to save themselves. The world had a ‘responsibility to protect’ them, Kouchner declared, which overrode all other considerations.
In Washington, the Carter administration began to think that it should shoulder the responsibility as well and leftists everywhere were outraged. The overwhelmingly majority saw French and American imperialism as the sole causes of suffering in Vietnam and did not want to look at the crimes of the anti-imperialist ‘liberators’.
Leaving all political considerations aside, they said, Kouchner’s plan may well break international law. As Paul Berman, Kouchner’s biographer explained, the ‘mission in east Asia was meant to save lives and yet the mission could easily be interpreted as an intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state, the People’s Republic of Vietnam. The boat people were citizens of the People’s Republic and the People’s Republic had by no means granted permission to Kouchner or to anyone else to go trolling the sea for the purpose of rescuing the enemies of the People’s Republic. By what right, in the name of what international accord, could Kouchner go ahead with his mission? He invoked a higher right, but to be sure, scoundrels on the wrong side of the law always invoke a higher right.’
As the new ideas on human rights and humanitarian intervention began to spread, conservatives on the right and left were appalled. The ‘realist’ Henry Kissinger feared that they would undermine America’s dictatorial allies, rightly so as events were to turn out. The ‘anti-imperialist’ Noam Chomsky feared they would undermine America’s dictatorial enemies and again he was right to do so. Both upheld the principle that sovereign states were entitled to do what they wanted within their borders.
After the disaster of the second Iraq War, such views are everywhere, yet on paper at any rate, Kouchner has won. In 2005, the United Nations adopted his language and said it had a ‘responsibility to protect’ the civilians victims of crimes against humanity regardless of whether sovereign governments wanted them to or not.
Meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy transformed Kouchner from aid worker to statesman. And it was heartening to see last week that in his new role as French foreign minister, he upheld his old cause by demanding that the UN deliver aid to the victims of the Burmese cyclone. He was opposed by authoritarian regimes the world over. A Western diplomat at the UN Security Council meeting said objections came from China, Kouchner’s old enemies in Vietnam, Russia and South Africa, which might not be a one-party state but has in the ANC only one party which can hope to win power. All knew without needing to be told that if the Burmese military were held to be illegitimate rulers whose wishes could be overruled because they lacked a democratic mandate, the same criteria could be used against them or their allies, too, and their desperate arguments reflected their fears.
China’s envoy topped them all when he said the crisis in Burma was no different from the deadly heatwave in France in the summer of 2003, an imbecilic comparison which ignored the fact that the French authorities did all they could to relieve the suffering and would not have turned away foreign help if it had been offered.
Britain is sitting on the fence, as it so often has during Gordon Brown’s premiership. Ministers told me that the UN has no mandate to protect the victims of natural disasters, but I sensed that they would move closer to Kouchner’s position if the Burmese junta continued to frustrate the relief effort.
At the time of writing, however, Whitehall is pooh-poohing all practical suggestions. Human rights activists from the Burma Campaign echo Aung San Suu Ki and call for foreign troops to escort aid workers into the stricken areas. They point out that the Burmese army suffered as much as the civilians from the cyclone and, in any case, most of the junta’s troops are far away holding down Burma’s ethnic minorities.
Suppose they are wrong, say the realists, and aid workers are met with armed resistance. Is the UN going to start a war for the sake of delivering rice rations? Even the apparently modest proposal to airdrop supplies is, they continue, a violation of Burma’s sovereignty.
As always, there are 1,001 good reasons for doing nothing. But I don’t think passivity is an option for the UN. In America in particular, there are voices saying it should be replaced with an alliance of democracies to exclude China and Russia. Europe ignores them for now, but if the UN cannot deliver aid to the sick and hungry of Burma they will become harder to dismiss.
Kouchner’s minimalist conception of a moral requirement to uphold basic standards is far more radical than it seems. It has helped subvert 20th-century communism and the former dictatorial allies of Henry Kissinger in Latin America and Asia. If the international community doesn’t uphold it in the 21st, it may subvert the United Nations as well.