It would be difficult to imagine a person who better combines passion with sanctimony than Bernard Kouchner. He is not self-effacing. Then again, it is his ego and talent that gave birth in part to MSF, and in part to the right to intervene on humanitarian grounds (“droit d’ingerence”), later more or less codified as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This entertaining interview on Al Jazeera’s Head to Head program, quite heated in parts, brings out the full Kouchner. He is insufferable and yet also bold, for instance producing an unqualified YES when asked if France should have apologized for its role in the Rwandan genocide. You don’t hear many politicians being as candid.
It’s worth watching just to see the grilling he gets, but also for his unwavering commitment to the idea of humanitarian militarism, of going in to stop the killing. Over and over, Kouchner champions the idea that when people are being killed, doing something is better than doing nothing. His belief seems unshakable, even in the face of examples like the West’s 2011 intervention in Libya, whose humanitarian cloak quickly slipped to reveal an agenda of regime change; an intervention that put Libya on the path to the unqualified violent mess of Libya today and nourished a brutal insurrection in Mali. Humanitarian? More lives lost than saved? Kouchner doesn’t just dodge that question, he seems to view it as irrelevant.
Kouchner accepts no responsibility for the negative outcomes of Western intervention. He deems interfering, even through military means, better than letting people get butchered. Is it good enough, as one of the panelists suggests, to dismiss bad outcomes on the grounds that the intent was pure? That everything else – the messes of the West’s failed state-building in Iraq or Afghanistan – is simply the law of unintended consequences? He seems equally impervious to arguments that the promise of R2P is chimerical, an attractive doctrine that works only in theory because in the real world it has and always will be used to justify self-interested political and military intervention by big powers into the affairs of little powers.
Much of this would be no more than thought-provoking for us humanitarians were it not for the fact of R2P and MSF sharing the same birthplace. Fraternal twins? Once fans of the idea, nowadays most humanitarians I know regard R2P with healthy skepticism. We are quick to recognize the political intent or neo-imperial posturing when the world powers decide to intervene somewhere, especially when based on a humanitarian imperative. And we are quick to note the hypocrisy of so many decisions to look the other way.
Contrast this with our less skeptical approach on calling for more humanitarian aid, as if it were unrelated to the right to interfere politically or militarily. On the level of and connection to power, the similarities of R2P to humanitarian action remain largely invisible to us, despite their sharing (literally, one could argue) the same DNA.
It seems right to me, unshakably right to me, that humans cannot allow other humans to be killed, to die, or to suffer without doing something. Am I as blind as is Kouchner on R2P? Why dismiss military intervention as mistaken given real politik while compassionate aid is necessitated because of real politik? Of course there are negative consequences. They do not shake our faith in the moral imperative to come to the aid of people in crisis; and in the heat of action are easy to ignore or dismiss.
Is it enough to press for more effective anticipation, monitoring and correction of negative consequences: better context analysis, a more piercing focus on the role of aid within the economy of war and openness about mistakes? All good. (Done poorly or half-heartedly, though, these control measures may even serve more to ease our doubts than to correct problems.). What about the deeper level, touching upon the model for humanitarian action, and the web of power relationships in which it rests? We humanitarians possess a profound need to feel good about our work, one that is well-insulated from challenge. What’s hiding in there?
The interview with Kouchner presents a vision of blind belief. For me, it brings these doubts to a head at about the 38 minute mark, leaving me to ponder an exchange between Kouchner and a member of the audience.
Question (from a young Kenyan woman): “…MSF’s actions are often followed by French troops. How would you react when people ask you is MSF just another engine [NGO? The word she uses is unclear] that protects French commercial interests?”
Kouchner: “You are partly right…”.
That is more than a casual sharing of DNA.