The Future of Humanitarianism
The Future of Humanitarianism

The Future of Humanitarianism

Mar 2, 2004

Kouchner argues that the globalization of compassion and human rights is a sign of substantial moral progress that can count some successes--most notably, in Kosovo and East Timor.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Welcome to the twenty-third Annual Morgenthau Memorial Lecture on Ethics and Foreign Policy. This lecture is always a highlight of the Carnegie Council's program year. It gives the Council community an opportunity to hear an important moral voice. It also provides an occasion for reaffirmation of the idea that through education and experience we can do better in this world, especially when it comes to promoting human rights and social justice.

This year we celebrate two anniversaries. We mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hans Morgenthau, who was born in 1904 in Coburg, Germany; we also mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Carnegie Council, born in 1914, just up the street on Fifth Avenue, in Mr. Carnegie's living room.

It is fitting in some ways that Carnegie and Morgenthau are linked. An unlikely pair? For sure. Carnegie was the prototypical millionaire industrialist and philanthropist, Morgenthau the quintessential scholar and teacher. But both men were by nature great idealists. Both of them were propelled through life by an overwhelming sense of destiny and moral duty. Both understood that power was in desperate need of direction, of moral purpose. And both saw their lives' work as providing a moral framework for a more peaceful and more just world.

Both Carnegie and Morgenthau were immigrants to America. The circumstances that led to their immigration were of course very different. Carnegie came to Pittsburgh as a young boy in the 1850s with his family, an economic refugee from Scotland seeking opportunity. Hans Morgenthau came to America in the 1930s on his own, a penniless academic, fleeing the Nazis and seeking merely to survive.

While these two men could not have been more different in terms of their life stories, personalities, talents, and careers, both were self-made, the kind of men who make a difference through their creative genius and sheer force of will. They were both thinkers as well as doers. They wrote books and then used their acquired influence to lobby the world's political leaders. They also built institutions.

While they never actually met, in a sense they do now. They meet here, at this meeting every year. Their legacies built the Carnegie Council, and their ideas still animate all the work that we do. Thanks to the hard work of our talented staff, we continue to provide a wonderful range of educational opportunities. These include our Merrill House public affairs programs here in New York; publications such as our journal, Ethics & International Affairs, our InPrint newsletter, and Human Rights Dialogue; numerous study groups, workshops, and seminars; faculty development programs for college and university teachers; a fellowship program for mid-career international affairs professionals; and a resource-rich Web site. As Professor Morgenthau might have said, if you come our offices at East 64th Street, you will see the world in a new way.

Today we honor the memories of Mr. Carnegie and Professor Morgenthau by looking forward rather than back. We honor their memories by taking a hard look at the problems confronting our world today. It is in this spirit and the spirit of mutual learning that we have invited Dr. Bernard Kouchner to be our lecturer this evening.

In the same tradition as Andrew Carnegie and Hans Morgenthau, Bernard Kouchner himself is a doer and a thinker. He is a man of ideas and of action. He is a builder of institutions. He is a resource and a role model for all of us who care about humanitarianism and the relief of human suffering.

His biography was included in the invitation, so I will mention just some of the highlights. Bernard Kouchner was a co-founder of the Nobel Prize-winning Doctors Without Borders. A medical doctor by training and profession, he has been a major voice and a major player in international humanitarian efforts for over twenty years.

Dr. Kouchner has held ministerial positions with different French governments and recently served as Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Kosovo. He brings with him unparalleled experience in public health, human rights, and international politics. Dr. Kouchner is the author of several books and co-founder of two news magazines. He is the recipient of several human rights awards including the Dag Hammarskjöld Prize and the Prix Europa.


BERNARD KOUCHNER: Thank you. It is an honor to be the guest of this annual meeting. I was very moved by your presentation of Mr. Morgenthau and the work of the Carnegie Council.

When I first heard of an institute devoted to the study of ethical issues in international politics, I was prepared to put on my academic hat. But after you offered me a topic, the future of humanitarianism, I thought I would try to combine the two—my experience as doer as well as thinker; in fact, the two are not so far apart.

Let me begin by reminding you of the last great wave of political moralization that took place at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. We know the result: it was the century of the Holocaust, murders, genocide, and two world wars.

World leaders gathered in the late 19th century at the Congress of Berlin to discuss ethics and law and all the "isms" in the world under the supervision of two great men, Bismarck and Disraeli. A few years later, at the Conference of Berlin, they were dividing Africa for their mutual profit. This should have been taken as an omen: beware of moralization, beware of people who moralize about how to make the world a better place.

At the beginning of the century, there was a fantastic resolution offered to the people, a treaty sanctioning the use of bombs from a plane. You have seen the result. In the First World War, 95 percent of the victims were military personnel. In the recent Balkans war, more than 95 percent of the victims were civilians. Today's wars are increasingly being fought from the air, and the victims more often than not are civilians.

My first involvement in the humanitarian aid field was with the International Red Cross during the Biafran-Nigerian civil war, in the days when I was still a medical student. We medical students had not been educated to take care of the largest, poorest part of the world, so when faced with the crisis in Biafra, we were at a loss, lacking the tools for coping with the situation. Somehow we had to find a way of coming to terms with the reality of poor people's lives.

Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as MSF or Doctors Without Borders, dates from that time. We were originally referred to as the French Doctors, but now we are known as an international group. When I came back to my country as a French doctor, but a very fresh French doctor, our fellow citizens dubbed us "Doctors Without Diplomas." That was some years before MSF received the Nobel Peace Prize!

Since my experience in Biafra, I have been involved in many of the world's major conflicts. I also founded Doctors of the World as well as another NGO that treats people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa by training hospital staff.

The Involvement of the Medical Community in Humanitarian Aid Work

Some of you may be wondering: how did a group of medical doctors get involved in humanitarian causes in the first place? To answer that, we need to go back to the time of Henri Dunant. He was not a physician but a Swiss bourgeois, a trader from Geneva, who discovered on the Solferino battlefield during the Crimean War that the wounded were the residue on both sides in the battlefield. Nobody was taking care of them after the retreat of the armies. At the time of making this discovery, Dunant just wanted to meet with Napoleon. He didn't succeed, but he did set up the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], which was certainly better than meeting Napoleon.

Nowadays we say that patients are the responsibility not only of doctors but of all humanity. This sounds simple enough, but when I first started working in the 1960s and 1970s, it was absolutely uncharted territory, and groups of medical workers could not intervene in the politics of states, even if the governments in question did not emanate from the sovereignty of the people.

In those days, your patients had to be inside national borders, not beyond them. We had no right to take care of a suffering person on the other side of the very thin, artificially drawn line called a border. Nor did we have the right to testify.

But then a revolution occurred. Doctors involved with the International Red Cross decided that all of the people coming to their hospitals—children who had been injured in bombings and students suffering from starvation—were also their patients, not just injured soldiers. Doctors Without Borders was born.

This does not mean that Doctors Without Borders is a politically neutral organization; we are not neutral but impartial. Neutrality and impartiality are not the same thing. One should not confuse those who are hit by bombs with those throwing bombs, the victims with their executors. Neutrality, never. Impartiality, yes—we have to take care of all of the victims on both sides of the conflict in question.

Thus Doctors Without Borders was not just a clever advertising slogan; it marked the real beginning of cross-borderism, not only in a medical but also a legal sense.

There have, in essence, been three main eras of the medical community's involvement in international humanitarian crises.

In the first era we asked the government: "Are we authorized? Can we receive the clearance to go and take care of your people, Mr. Government, Mr. Dictator?" If they refused, there was no way to cross the border. It could only be through ICRC involvement and neutrality.

The next era was that of the French Doctors. We were asking the government the same question: "Mr. Dictator, will you allow us to care for your patients?" If they said "Yes, okay," we'd come. If they refused, we'd say, "Sorry, but we're coming anyway"—and would cross the border. It was physically difficult, and some of our people died. Others have been imprisoned for years.

In the third and present era, we put it like this: "Mr. Dictator, in the name of the international community, in the name of the UN system, we advise you not to massacre your minorities."

"Why not?"

"Because we will use measures: embargos, travel restrictions, freezing your bank accounts, and eventually military pressure."

So is it human rights for us doctors to take care of the sick, of AIDS patients as we are doing now? Yes. At the same time, we have made a political choice. The key lesson I have learned in nearly forty years in humanitarian work, including my ten years in the French government, is that in between theory and practice is a very important field called politics. Like any other field, aid work is intertwined with politics. We must always be conscious of this.

So is the world getting any better at respecting human rights, at providing humanitarian assistance? Yes, I believe we are getting better at protecting and helping people in need. But in another way, no, we are not getting any better: we are still acting too late.

Le droit d'ingérence, or the "Right to Interfere"

This leads me to another set of issues: our current ideas about what I have called le droit d'ingérence, the right to interfere—or as Kofi Annan would put it, the right to intervene, humanitarian intervention. This idea has developed in part because of the international involvement of the medical community and in part because of the progress made in setting up an International Criminal Court as well as war crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Another important factor has been the involvement of the world's media—the so-called CNN effect. The media creates pressure on public opinion. Without this pressure, there is no pressure on politicians, who are sensitive only to pressure from people within their own countries.

That said, there is an aspect of humanitarian intervention that has proved rather difficult to implement: I refer to the tension between state sovereignty and the right to interfere. The international community is working on a new system of humanitarian protection through the UN Security Council; yet globalization clearly does not herald an end of state sovereignty, which remains the bulwark of a stable world order. To put it another way: we cannot have global governance or a UN system without the sovereignty of states.

The international community must strive, in the pattern of the European Union, to resolve this inherent contradiction: how can we maintain state sovereignty yet also find a way to make common decisions on common issues and problems? One way to resolve the dilemma is to say that sovereignty of states can be respected only if it emanates from the people inside the state. If a state is a dictatorship, then it is absolutely not worthy of the international community's respect.

Joseph Goebbels once claimed, "We are a sovereign state. Inside our own state, we have the right to do what we want with our socialists, with our communists, and with our Jews."

François Mitterand, France's former president, had a slightly different perspective: "The sovereignty of states ceases when non-assistance to persons in danger begins." This is a good definition. Yes, to the sovereignty of states. Yes, to a stable world. Yes, to the United Nations system. But we must stop this theoretical talk as soon as oppression begins and people in danger are appealing to us because their lives are in danger. We must listen carefully for that call.

Intervention must ideally be agreed on by the international community, that is to say, by the UN Security Council. For humanitarianism to have a future, we will need to work on modernizing and transforming the UN Security Council system so that it works better.

For the most part, apart from Iraq, the current system has worked quite well. Recently, in the case of Haiti, the United States and France rushed back to work together—too late, as usual—but at least they wanted to cooperate. We are seeing a return to business as normal, conducted through the Security Council.

* * *

So when you ask me, can international relations be ethical? After forty years of engaging with this question, my first instinct is to respond "I doubt it"—as there can be no denying that the international community has experienced some major defeats such as occurred in Rwanda. Nevertheless I continue to believe that ethics can be part of international affairs.

The globalization of information has led to a globalization of involvement, of understanding, along with a global debate about the right to intervene in order to protect minorities and victims of persecution. All of these trends are part of the same whole. Moreover, the globalization of compassion and of human rights is a sign of substantial moral progress. It has led to a new wave of on-the-ground involvement, which can count some successes—most notably, in Kosovo and East Timor.

Questions and Answers

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I want to thank Dr. Kouchner for giving us his thoughts and also for reflecting on his experience. I would like to open the floor to questions.

QUESTION: How would you compare the lessons of Bosnia and Kosovo? One of the criticisms of humanitarian involvement in Bosnia was that it became a rationale for the West not to intervene militarily, when in fact intervention would have stopped the war. I've heard some criticism to the effect that the presence of Doctors Without Borders in Srebrenica provided a false sense of security and that the UN did not adequately defend its own safe areas. And when intervention finally took place in both Bosnia (in 1995) and Kosovo, it was not through the UN but through NATO. This raises a second question about the ability of the UN Security Council to uphold international law and the Genocide Convention, when any single member can veto a resolution.

BERNARD KOUCHNER: I am familiar with the criticisms. I traveled with François Mitterand to Bosnia and we reopened the airport. Why? For humanitarian intervention and access. Would it have been better to allow the suffering, the bombing and the starvation to continue? I don't think so.

We intervened militarily too late in Bosnia, after 250,000 victims [by some estimates] had been claimed. In Kosovo, we were a bit less late, after approximately 10,000 victims had been claimed. Still too late, but better. I was the only one inside the French government to write an article urging that we focus on Kosovo next and that this time we should intervene in advance.

The notion of the right to intervene has as its goal the prevention of war. In Macedonia we sent 700-800 UN troops in advance, thereby avoiding war. There were some victims, yes, but no war. (Likewise, if we had been able to intervene in Haiti earlier—we already knew about the conditions, about Mr. Aristide's oppression—then we could have avoided the current situation.) So this is the answer: act early.

Finally, I would say that what we did in Bosnia was certainly better than doing nothing. Remember that traditionally, we have not interfered; we let them die. Remember the old wars—we let them die. Remember the new wars, the war in Rwanda—we let them die.

QUESTION: The Red Cross and some other NGOs working in refugee camps have been victimized by guerrilla forces, especially on the occasions where the defeated army simply takes over the camp. But because of their neutral stance, they can do absolutely nothing. Can Doctors Without Borders do any better?

BERNARD KOUCHNER: Sadly, aid workers have been victimized, and especially in certain refugee camps. Being a humanitarian volunteer is a risky life, and protecting volunteers is a very difficult problem.

The ICRC always refused protection because they don't want to be involved on any particular side, or to be in league with the army. NGOs, on the other hand, usually accept protection because they don't want their people to be killed.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. The international community intervened to protect the convoys carrying food to starving people in Somalia. It was badly done because of the triple command structure, and unfortunately eighteen American soldiers died with the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter. Even when you call in troops for protection, it does not always go smoothly.

QUESTION: One of the problems with the UN is that countries must bring issues to the Security Council. Let us take Sudan, where for seventeen or eighteen years you had a war that never came before the Council. Likewise in Uganda, you have massacres taking place, and Uganda's President, Museveni, has not brought the issue to the UN. How can we resolve this problem of the sovereignty of a country, when they don't bring issues to the UN and therefore important issues never appear on the Security Council's agenda?

BERNARD KOUCHNER: You are right that the sovereignty of states applies, and if a sovereign state like Sudan does not present its case to the Security Council, then nothing can be done by the UN to stop the situation. Two weeks ago in Stockholm we had a conference organized by the Swedish and Canadian governments on the prevention of genocide. We spoke about the need to reform the Security Council. First, we agreed on the need to establish an agency independent of the UN system, which plays the role of rapporteur, reporting its findings about an imminent genocide or massacre directly to the Secretary General and the Security Council, without the right of veto.

Second, we agreed that further work is needed on implementing Chapter VII, which provides for an early warning system and a rapid reaction force. In Haiti, for example, everyone was waiting for the French or the Americans. In the future, the international community and the Secretary General should ring the bell and send UN special reaction forces.

QUESTION: In Kosovo, soon to be in Iraq, also now in Haiti, the UN will be brought in or is already on the ground. The Kosovars think that they are being occupied by UNMIK [UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo]. The Iraqis think they are being occupied by the CPA [Civilian Political Authority]. Where is the exit strategy in these situations, and how does the international community work together with the population of these countries so that they don't feel as if they are being occupied?

BERNARD KOUCHNER: We need to be more precise in all UN resolutions: which forces, for how long, and what is our ultimate goal? International lawyers are working on improving the Security Council's precision in all of its mandates.

Resolution 1244, which outlined the UN's plans for a political solution to the Kosovo crisis, seemed like the right thing at the time, because if you want to get an agreement of all nations, including the five Permanent Members, there is no other way to do it.

To be fair, UNMIK was not considered an occupation force. At first, they were hailed as saviors. In a way, we saved the Albanians. That said, we didn't protect the Serbs in the province enough because it was difficult to do so. This remains my deepest regret.

In Kosovo, we never decided anything without the involvement of the largest possible spectrum of the Kosovar people. This didn't always work, of course. There were occasions when the Kosovars didn't want to make a decision, which forced us to do so—and our decisions sometimes went against their will. But it was my primary political strategy, and that is why I keep saying that between theory and practice there is politics. Sometimes I was wrong. Sometimes I was absolutely biased. Sometimes I was absolutely oppressive. But I had to decide when they were unable to do so. And now I see they are unable to decide between independence and substantial autonomy.

So the lesson learned is to be humble enough not to decide without the people of the country in question coming on board. This is our problem in Iraq.

I have the reputation of being just one of the five persons in my country of 62 million to say, "Yes, we have to get rid of Saddam Hussein," because I had been advocating doing just that for thirty years. But, unfortunately, I now have the added reputation of having been Mr. Bush's only supporter in France.

I wrote an article that appeared on the front page of Le Monde entitled "No to the war, no to Saddam." I said that I agreed with getting rid of Saddam but not with the way we were doing it. I also said it was wrong of Mr. Chirac and Mr. Bush to have engaged in an arm-wrestling match over Iraq. A second lesson we have learned is that united, the international community is completely invincible, but when there is division between the United States and Europe, it is a mess.

Tragically, part of my Kosovo team was assassinated in Baghdad, in the suicide attack against UN headquarters on August 19, 2003.

QUESTION: You favor intervention and you also favor multilateralism. Do you also favor unilateral intervention? Although you say that the UN is the best that we have, it doesn't work very well all of the time. It might be worth thinking about alternatives.

BERNARD KOUCHNER: For the most part, I do not favor unilateral intervention. I favor United Nations and Security Council decisions. But when it is impossible to get a resolution, as in Rwanda, then we are powerless to intervene to stop the killing. The French and the Belgians sent 200 paratroopers just to protect the whites in Kigali, and then they all escaped. Operation Turquoise was certainly badly done, though at least it demonstrated an awareness of the need to do something.

Tony Blair decided to send one of the British brigades returning from Kosovo to Sierra Leone, and their presence saved the situation. It was a political decision by the British. Sometimes the United Nations offers a resolution. Sometimes a state has to make up its own mind and take action.

QUESTION: But should France have sent 10,000 or 20,000 troops into Rwanda without Security Council authorization?

BERNARD KOUCHNER: At that time I would have answered yes. But they should have been sent to the right place (to protect the people) and at the right time, rather than too late. Rwanda was the first TV genocide. We were participants in the genocide in our living rooms every evening, and we did nothing. Discussions about what went wrong in Rwanda have marked a step forward in the right to intervene and in the fight for human rights.

QUESTION: Kosovo is the gold-plated peacekeeping mission. We spend more money per capita there than anywhere else. When you look now at how much progress has been made in Kosovo on rule-of-law issues, on economic development, on everything the UN is there to do, does the progress justify the cost of our involvement? And if so, do we have to be prepared to spend that kind of money and time elsewhere?

BERNARD KOUCHNER: Peace is always costly. I was in the region with Richard Holbrooke four months ago. There is good progress in Bosnia. True, it is ridiculous that the international agreement was so complicated. Now there are thirteen prime ministers and three presidents, but things are going better than before—I refer to the days when there were 250,000 victims. In Kosovo, we see economic progress, human progress, reconstruction progress—but unfortunately no political progress for the moment.

QUESTION: You began by discussing humanitarianism as something that was better than ordinary politics, and you talked about how humanitarianism is devoted to impartiality—not neutrality but impartiality—and said that insofar as it acts on behalf of impartiality, it cares for all. Then you argued that a humanitarian ethic needs to be interested in prevention. Prevention is about the future, requiring action to be taken on behalf of the future in the interests of preventing harm. That kind of action is a political activity. So can we say that the politics of humanitarianism is in fact just ordinary, everyday politics, or do you see a distinction?

BERNARD KOUCHNER: I am a politician and I am a humanitarian. All my life I have been devoted to protecting people. For me there is no difference. When I organized a boat to rescue the boat people in the China Sea during the Vietnam War, it was absolutely illegal. My first rule is, be illegal if you have to—in order to change the law. So we became outlaws. We were not allowed to organize a rescue, but we did it anyway. Politicians were absolutely incapable of saving the boat people even though many of them were actively opposed to the war; and humanitarians were prevented from intervening.

In a case like this—where we used humanitarian access and humanitarian tools and humanitarian means to rescue people—should we call it a humanitarian or a political involvement? Both. I love politicians acting as humanitarians and vice versa. I do not advocate a complete, strict, rigid separation between the humanitarian and the political worlds.

For me it is the same movement of heart and thought. When we founded Doctors Without Borders, they accused us of politics. When I was Minister of Health, I was accused of politicizing the Ministry of Health because I was looking at public health issues and not simply coming up with ways to take care of patients. Medical staffs consider that the activities of public health development and transformation, prevention, and information are all in the sphere of politics—what I would term "good politics."

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