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Iraq-friendly Foreign Minister closes lid on Chirac era

By Jim Nolan - posted Thursday, 31 May 2007

The contrast spoke volumes. Last week I mentioned the name Bernard Kouchner to a friend. This well-connected university academic was puzzled and asked who he was. Two days later I asked Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari his thoughts on the appointment by new French President Nicholas Sarkozy of Kouchner as his Foreign Minister, the co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières having been a minister in the Mitterrand socialist government, the UN governor of Kosovo from 1999 to 2001 and still one of France's most popular politicians.

Zebari, a Kurd and a genuine resistance fighter against Saddam Hussein, greeted the name warmly because he well knew what a local sophisticate had no idea about: that Kouchner was a true friend of all Iraqis. Visits to Iraqi Kurdistan were early examples of the heartburn which Kouchner regularly created for those who are now under him.

Richard Holbrooke, the former US ambassador to the UN, told The New York Times: "It's an amazing appointment, a stunning event in French foreign policy ... He's motivated by an anti-totalitarian drive whether he sees injustice from the Left or the Right."


He added: "It will be very positive for US-French relations, because he does not come with a visceral anger towards the American 'hyperpower'."

Should Hilary Benn become deputy Labour leader and Britain's deputy prime minister, as seems likely, it is hard to imagine Britain and French will not continue to support the democratically elected Iraqis. What has been a pathetic deference to Jacques Chirac's "realism" in the "liberal" West will no longer be a convenient fig leaf. The "sophisticated" Europeans (read France) have just left the building.

Kouchner's lessons on human rights came from real experience. On one visit to Kurdistan he was lucky to escape an assassination attempt. On another trip he took Madame Mitterrand to see for herself Saddam's genocide in action, much to the horror of the Quai d'Orsay.

Zebari recalled Kouchner so fondly because it was after his Iraq visits that the Frenchman first articulated the "duty to protect": the doctrine that says state sovereignty should give way in the face of massive human rights abuses. This is now the official policy of the UN, even though Darfur is just the most conspicuous example of the world body's divergent practice and policy.

In was much later, when the death camps on the European continent became a reality in Yugoslavia, that Kouchner next came to world attention. He was seminal in persuading France to sign up to the Nato intervention in that country, and later became the UN representative in Kosovo.

He opposed military intervention in Iraq but his preferred approach was effectively scuttled by Chirac's "unilateral" decision to announce a veto of any further resolution. Recall the spectacle of Chirac entertaining the monster Robert Mugabe to tea at the Elysee palace when he was rounding up support for his old buddy Saddam?


Saddam believed until the end that the French would save him. Serge Boidevaix, the former secretary-general of the French Foreign Ministry, and Jean-Bernard Merimee, the French ambassador to the UN from 1991-95, have both since admitted taking oil-for-food cash from Saddam, and both claimed the French government was aware of this.

In marked contrast to his predecessors, Kouchner is unlikely to abandon the Iraqis, whose human rights he has championed for so long to the coalition of the parties of God and fascism.

Paul Berman's 2005 book Power and the Idealists contains a fascinating sketch of Kouchner's evolution from his early meeting with Ché Guevara - he had the audacity to challenge him about Cuba's failure to hold democratic elections - to his creation of Médecins Sans Frontières down through Yugoslavia to Iraq.

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Article edited by Susan Prior.
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First published in The Australian on May 28, 2007.

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About the Author

Jim Nolan is an old fashioned social democrat and Sydney Barrister with an interest in Human Rights. He is a long-standing member of the Australian Labor Party.

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