France Without Illusions

The French president vowed to take on

dictators everywhere.

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.

What happened?

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

potential intervention.

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

rights disasters.

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

completely vanished.

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.

             J-L K.
Procurement Consultant
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