The French president vowed to take on
Has he now given up on human rights entirely?
These are tough times for idealists -- even in
France, birthplace of modern humanitarianism.
Just two years ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy
pledged to make human rights an unprecedented
centerpiece of his foreign policy,
vowing in his victory speech "to reach out
to all those in the world ... who are persecuted
by tyrants and dictators."
And for a time, his agenda seemed to be off
to a good start.
Sarkozy chose as foreign minister Bernard Kouchner,
cofounder of Doctors Without Borders
and long one of Europe's most eloquent
proponents of humanitarian action.
They created a new international human rights
cabinet -- the world's first -- and installed
a 30-year-old Muslim woman of Senegalese origin,
Rama Yade, to run it.
So it was a stunning moment last December
when Kouchner suddenly declared
the effort a failure. "There is a permanent
contradiction between human rights
and the foreign policy of a state,
even in France," he told an interviewer.
"Running a country obviously draws you away
from a certain angélisme
[utopian view] of the world."
This from someone who had spent
the last 40 years trying to save civilians
caught up in nasty wars from Biafra to Darfur,
a man whose legacy includes a
Nobel Peace Prize for the organization
he founded to act on just those principles
he was now renouncing.
Even the much-celebrated human rights cabinet
was "a mistake," Kouchner said.
In June, Sarkozy eliminated Yade's job altogether
and shifted her to secretary of state for sports.
Was France admitting that the only workable
model for foreign policy is blunt pragmatism?
And if France can't carry out
a human rights-based foreign policy, can anyone?
It is interesting to note that Kouchner's comment
drew relatively little outrage from anywhere
in the French political spectrum -- or for
that matter in the human rights community.
As if a certain fatalism had set in.
As if he'd stated the obvious.
In Kouchner's statement, there was certainly
what appeared to be a degree
of personal annoyance with the younger
and more popular Yade.
But there was also a discouraged sense
that his human rights agenda
had been mugged by reality.
In the preceding months, Kouchner had
registered a series of defeats.
He had failed to convince Sarkozy
of the need for strong European intervention
in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's civil war,
despite the threat of a mounting
civilian death toll.
He had lost a diplomatic battle
in the United Nations after the Burmese regime
refused to let Western aid into the country
following Hurricane Nargis.
Kouchner had wanted the U.N. Security Council
to specifically cite Burma's failure
to uphold its "responsibility to protect,"
seeing the measure as a step toward
But it was a lost cause.
Russia and China were ready to veto.
Indeed, by last year, Kouchner had come
to see Russia and China as
reliable protectors of repressive regimes,
using their Security Council seats
to ensure that the likes of Burma, Sudan,
and Zimbabwe were not hit
with sanctions over human rights abuses.
"There has been a backlash,"
he once told me.
Gone were the 1990s, when Russia and China
were wallflowers and the Western world
could lead spectacular operations
in Iraqi Kurdish areas, East Timor,
and Kosovo to halt unfolding human
Now Sarkozy, the proponent of challenging
"tyrants and dictators" everywhere, talks about
an era of "relative powers," when
the West's humanitarian influence
is balanced out by other forces.
But is Sarkozy even trying?
By the time of his first trip to Moscow,
in late 2007, his campaign rhetoric about
the "intolerable killing of journalists" had
Even after Russia invaded Georgia last year,
Sarkozy went to great lengths to keep
the relationship on track.
Similarly, in 2008 Sarkozy threatened
to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games
if China didn't start serious talks with
the Dalai Lama.
Weeks later, after major French contracts
with China seemed in doubt, he backed down.
So who will defend human rights now?
Even for Russia and China, human rights
can still come in handy -- for example,
when the priority is to put pressure
on a country like Iran over its nuclear program.
But giving Russia and China veto power
over humanitarian intervention isn't quite what
Kouchner was talking about when he used
to invoke, in the old days,
"the duty of international meddling."
The world about which Kouchner said those
words simply doesn't exist anymore,
and for once he seems to have
no answers about the world he finds himself in.
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