November 7, 1996

Human lives more important than sovereignty

by Eric Smith

Member of European Parliament Bernard Kouchner

Bernard Kouchner is challenging the primacy of the principle of national sovereignty in international law. In the most recent Beatty Memorial Lecture at McGill, Kouchner argued that the international community needs a right of interference that supersedes national sovereignty in cases where countries are massacring or otherwise oppressing a minority within their own borders.

Founder of Médecins sans frontières and Médecins du monde, minister of humanitarian aid in François Mitterand's cabinet and now member of the European parliament and chair of its commission on development, Kouchner has a long history of dealing with crisis situations around the world. Now he wants the international community to adopt a legal framework to allow intervention before these crises erupt.

According to Kouchner, "If we do nothing, if we do not invent balanced and civilized systems, a brotherhood and a collective solidarity, if we do not find common values to create a collective mechanism, we shall have to cure again and again wars of desolation, always too late."

For Kouchner, this collective mechanism entails legal and political tools for conflict prevention to allow the international community to intervene inside a country's borders to protect the human rights of a minority.

Although long a champion of international humanitarian aid, Kouchner is concerned that these efforts are always too little, too late.

"I am arguing for the limits of humanitarian aid," Kouchner told the Reporter. "That means politics. The humanitarian becomes an issue when the political fails. It is because politics failed in Zaire that now we would send humanitarian aid. But it is much too late for that now. It is not the humanitarian that is needed now, it is the military."

At several times in the past few years, the current crisis in Zaire might have been averted if the international community had taken preventive actions, according to Kouchner. There were, he argued, three missed opportunities. First, the international community should have moved into Rwanda to stop the genocide.

"It was a televised genocide," he said, "and when UN Secretary-General Boutros Ghali asked for the intervention of 19 heads of state who had promised him military help, not one of them agreed." Later, when Hutu militia began reorganizing and launching assaults on Rwanda from within Zairian refugee camps, "Boutros Ghali called on the international community to do something about policing the camps. This ended up being left up to Zaire. It didn't take long before we had the consequences of that."

Third, and according to Kouchner, most politically important, when things were heating up in Burundi, "Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania, asked for international intervention supported by the Organization of African Unity. They said, we have the army, we need financial support. Who refused? The Americans said 'OK, if the Europeans are on board, we'll provide logistical help.' The French and the Belgians said no. The Security Council asked. They said no again. And this was at the request of the Africans."

According to Kouchner, conformity to principles of international law that privilege national sovereignty over human rights is the largest obstacle to an international consensus on the right of interference. "The legal community codifies changes in the law. There are some legal philosophers, some avant-garde judges and lawyers, who are already working on the right of interference because everyone knows it will go through eventually, though in how many years I don't know. So conformity is to say, 'That's not our business, that's happening inside borders that are not ours.'

But resistance to the principles of conflict prevention is more prevalent in Europe than it is here. Canada, according to Kouchner, is one of the members of the international community most open to the idea of a right of interference. "I am at ease here," he said.

"Believe me, [Canadian Armed Forces General] Romeo Dallaire is for a right of interference," said Kouchner. "I was with him over in Rwanda. He was saying, 'What is this? We're on a peacekeeping mission right in the middle of a war. It's a joke.'"