On Veolia, Bernard Kouchner and humanitarian action

I am writing in response to Adri Nieuwhof’s various articles on Veolia Transport, and in particular her article on Institut Veolia Environment (see International experts urged to withdraw from Veolia Institute) of 8 December 2006, in which she urges all international experts collaborating with the Institut to end their relationship with it. In the article, Nieuwhof comments: “It is likely that the international experts are not aware of Veolia’s involvement in the illegal tramline project in East Jerusalem. A number of them have a track record of respect for international law and human rights, for instance … Bernard Kouchner … founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres.”

For the record, Kouchner, who is now France’s foreign minister, is one of 12 doctors and journalists who founded Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in 1971. He left MSF in 1979, after an acrimonious dispute which was never resolved. In fact, public disagreement between the two has only deepened since his departure, particularly on the issue of the droit d’ingerence humanitaire (right to intervene on humanitarian grounds), which Mr. Kouchner supports.

The droit d’ingerence humanitaire is the new name for a “just war.” It is usually invoked by big powers to justify illegal military interventions in areas that are of geo-political interest to them. The droit d’ingerence has no basis in international humanitarian law and is not related to the “duty to provide humanitarian assistance.”

Last month, James Orbinski, who was president of the Medecins Sans Frontieres International Council when it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, visited the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam for the world premiere of Triage: the Dilemma of Dr. James Orbinski. I asked him how he felt about Kouchner having become Europe’s leading proponent of a war against Iran. His answer: “Terrible.”

Indeed, on 22 May 2007, shortly after French President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed Kouchner as his foreign minister, the French and US sections of Medecins Sans Frontieres both posted a statement on their websites (the same statement in French and English), disassociating themselves from Kouchner’s peculiar mix of politics, armed intervention and humanitarian action.

Medecins du Monde, the group co-founded by Kouchner in 1980 after he left MSF also reported in a press release, after Kouchner’s appointment to the French foreign ministry, that he has held no responsibilities and been involved in no decision-taking within the group since 1988.

Philippa Burton is a British-Australian self-employed subtitler and newswriter, who grew up in France, lived ten years in the US, and currently resides in the Netherlands. She is also the archivist of the American crime writer Patricia Highsmith.