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Friday, October 15, 1999 Published at 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK


World: Europe

Bernard Kouchner: The man behind MSF



Medecins sans Frontieres, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize may never have come into being without the drive of one of its founding members, Bernard Kouchner.

Mr Kouchner, a charismatic doctor-turned politician, was this year appointed the head of the United Nations' civil administration for Kosovo.

But it was in the 1970s and the 1980s that he made a name for himself and the organisation he co-founded by speaking out against human rights abuses around the world.

The former French health minister once declared that "mankind's suffering belongs to all men" and his Kosovo appointment is arguably the achievement of a lifetime of work for human rights.

It is an attitude which he sought to embed in MSF, helping it to develop a reputation as the aid agency which would remain behind even when others had pulled out.

Human rights activist

Born in 1939 in Avignon, Bernard Kouchner trained as a doctor and for decades has been inextricably linked with the French tradition of human rights activism.


[ image:  ]
On 20 December, 1971, Dr Kouchner and other French doctors founded Medecins Sans Frontieres, proclaiming it the world's first non-governmental organisation specialising in emergency medical assistance.

Most of the team had worked with the Red Cross between 1968 and 1970 in the appalling conditions of the Biafra war.

They became highly critical of the unwillingness of many agencies to surmount legal and administrative obstacles to providing medical aid to those who needed it.

The team was also among the first in the world to recognise how they could help shape public opinion through the enormous power of the media, a principle which helped change the nature of aid agency campaigning.

Humanitarian doctrine

Dr Kouchner's experiences in Biafra and south-east Asia proved to be the first steps on a long personal journey.

Drawing on his years of witnessing the fall-out of human conflict with MSF, in 1987 he published "Le Devoir d'Ingerence" - "The duty to intervene".


[ image: Médecins Sans Frontières: Helped change face of NGOs]
Médecins Sans Frontières: Helped change face of NGOs
The book expanded his long held views and argued that liberal democracies not only had a right but were morally obliged to override the sovereignty of another nation in the name of protecting human rights.

It was this same doctrine which Nato invoked to justify the bombing of Yugoslavia.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Dr Kouchner became an increasingly well-known figure in France as he used his position at the helm of MSF to highlight the horrors of war.

His missions have included taking teams to Cambodia, Thailand, El Salvador, Rwanda and working secretly in Afghanistan.

Media controversies

He quickly became known for his telegenic performances and his scathing criticisms of the reluctance of the west to intervene.


[ image:  ]
He is well connected to the media through his famous journalist wife Christine Ockrent, though some of his appearances have courted controversy.

In 1992 he was criticised after he posed on a Mogadishu beach carrying a sack of rice during the flawed UN humanitarian intervention in Somalia.

In another incident, he embarrassed his own government by branding the late President Mobutu of Zaire as a "walking bank safe in a leopard-skin hat" just as French troops were intervening to drive out anti-Mobutu rebels.


[ image:  ]
Perhaps mindful that no publicity is bad publicity, he has not allowed these criticisms to get in the way of his work.

On leaving the day to day running of MSF, he headed four ministries as a member of France's recent socialist governments and won an equal number of international prizes for his humanitarian work.

Over the last decade he has made countless trips to the former Yugoslavia, where MSF was heavily involved, and argued strongly for more western involvement - a stance which reporteldy led Washington to oppose his appointment to the Kosovo job.

But Dr Kouchner described his appointment as the "continuation of a lifelong march", saying his experiences had made him a "specialist in the collapse of society".

"Humanitarian aid does not distinguish between categories of victims," he told the French newspaper Le Monde.



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