Interview – Bernard Kouchner: founding Médicins Sans Frontières and combatting genocide

Bernard Kouchner’s self-portrait as a “very young, very handsome” doctor treating Nigeria’s 1968 civil war victims was the ultimate embodiment of the comedy, tragedy, and odd streak of self-glorification that would run through his talk. Kouchner’s struggle to divide medicine and politics amidst this conflict eventually led to a hairpin turn in his life: the Red Cross’ insistence on neutrality became a burden for the doctor, and on returning to Paris he circulated a statement condemning Nigeria. Within three years, he had co-founded Médecins Sans Frontières, and humanitarians began to push past the borders that had barricaded medical aid in the past.

If all the world’s a stage, Kouchner has long sought a lead role or, at least, a firm footing on the French podium. Basking in the limelight of the Union’s Goodman Library, he flexed his humanitarian muscles and reeled off his CV in theatrical cadences. “It is impossible in one hour to talk about my life”, he warned us. Here, there, everywhere – Kouchner’s 75 years on the planet have catapulted him from crisis to crisis as an ever-inexhaustible hero of the “responsibility to protect”. After running a comb through his hair, he launched into an address on “how to prevent massacres”, and his charisma filled every corner of the already crammed room.

Kouchner’s voice is certainly not one to be muted. The relative ease of aid workers staying quiet during mass suffering held no appeal: “Neutrality in such a situation is complicit.” Passivity is not in Kouchner’s nature – the Rwandan genocide of ’94 instilled him with a vehemence of “never again”, and he condemned what he saw as apathy towards the Syrian situation. Kouchner is fundamentally opposed to countries’ borders limiting the medical help delivered to civilians, and demanded of us: “Do you have the right to let them die?” Restricting intervention if patients are “not your citizens” is senseless, he argued, since working through the government (“often the cause of conflict”) hinders rather than helps.

Nor does Kouchner shy away from making enemies if he deems it necessary. His party loyalties have proven somewhat haphazard: expulsion from the French Communist Party in the ’60s for trying to overthrow the leadership was echoed in 2007 when the Socialist Party expelled him for accepting the post of Foreign Minister under its rival Sarkozy. In a career that has exploded beyond the walls of hospital wards, Kouchner has also acted as UN Special Representative for Kosovo and held the position of French Minister of Health twice. Less than a decade after co-founding the Nobel Prize-winning Médecins Sans Frontières, he came to irreconcilable blows with colleagues and left in a storm of bitterness. From this emerged Kouchner’s more vocal replacement organisation: Médecins du Monde. Decades of public relations seem to have taught him a thing or two: “You know, mankind is a problem. And their virility is another problem.”

When it comes to the subject of war, Kouchner has certainly not held back. In his Guardian article supporting the force used in Libya, he wrote of how “momentary violence – under resolution 1973 – may serve to achieve real peace, surely preferable to a pacifism that would allow civilians to be slaughtered.” However, his PR strategy has not sat well with everyone, having been occasionally tarred with allegations of oversimplification, egotism, and militarism. Particularly hostile was the work of French investigative journalist, Pierre Péan, who published an exposé condemning Kouchner in 2009. Amongst several charges, Péan accused Kouchner of overlooking the nuances of local circumstances. The doctor-politician nevertheless remains popular in his nation, even after his backing for Saddam Hussain’s removal.

Yet Kouchner’s earlier magnetism in front of his crowded listeners was strangely absent in our fleeting one-to-one interview before he was whisked off to dinner. His gaze drifted over my shoulder and his responses seemed equally disinterested. His mid-conversation snub, “I have no relationship now with the media… I’m not interested anymore”, admittedly should have sent warning signals. Perhaps it was down to the limitations of our language barrier, or the inevitable weasel words of a politician, but even so my admiration had deflated by the time our nine minutes were up. After I had asked twice whether his interventionist slant extended beyond genocide to matters such as Putin’s anti-gay policies, a rambling rant on “real genocides like Cambodia” had to suffice.

More responsive was his reply as to how his paternal Jewish roots influence his feelings towards Israel, though he initially dismissed this with a shrug: “I have no Jewish identity”. On seeing my surprise, he ventured: “When the Jews are threatened, yes, then I can say I am Jewish… That’s not to say I’m not supporting the state of Israel, but I’m absolutely not obliged to support Israeli politics. And I believe that [Jews] have a duty, an obligation as Jewish, to recognise the suffering of others, and to set up a Palestinian state, and I hope that they do.” The murder of his grandparents at Auschwitz may well have been one element firing his allergy to impassivity. Even so, Kouchner’s power supply is not infinite: “In the end, you get tired of always being on the side of the persecuted people, or the poor people, or the minorities, but I did it – yes I did – and it was only my determination…”

“If you want a reward, don’t be a humanitarian. If you want a medal, don’t be a humanitarian. If you don’t, be a humanitarian.” Advice to us from a flawless, modern-day Hercules? No, but praise for Kouchner from an old lady in blue seemed universally felt by the audience of Oxford students, who broke into applause at her words. Bernard Kouchner might be something of a Marmite figure across the globe, and his policies aren’t to everyone’s taste, but the spread of his influence played an incontrovertible role in accelerating medical interventionist advances across the late 20th century – love it or hate it.