Global Policy Forum

French Foreign Minister Voices Doubts on Human Rights Push


By Steven Erlanger

New York Times
December 10, 2008

The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, made his reputation as a fierce proponent of human rights, founding Doctors Without Borders and famously helping to carry rice up the beach in Mogadishu, Somalia, in the middle of severe civil warfare in 1992. Mr. Kouchner, a Socialist, shocked many supporters when he agreed to join the center-right cabinet of President Nicolas Sarkozy. But he shocked them again on Wednesday when he admitted in an interview that "there is permanent contradiction between human rights and the foreign policy of a state, even in France." Speaking to the newspaper Le Parisien for the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Wednesday, Mr. Kouchner said: "One cannot decide the foreign policy of a country only as a function of human rights. To lead a country obviously distances one from a certain Utopianism" — in French — "angélisme."

Mr. Kouchner, 69, known for his frankness and his emotional politics, also said that he had erred in asking Mr. Sarkozy to name a minister of state for human rights in the Foreign Ministry. Mr. Sarkozy granted that request, and Rama Yade, 32, a Senegal-born French lawyer, was given the job. But it was a mistake, Mr. Kouchner said. "I think I was wrong to ask for a secretary of state for human rights." The contradiction between human rights and foreign policy can be productive, he said, "but was it necessary to give it a governmental character by creating a secretary of state?" He answered: "I no longer believe so, and it was an error on my part to propose it to the president." Ms. Yade, he said, "has done, with talent, as well as she could."

Later in the day, Ms. Yade said she was not naí¯ve enough to think that foreign policy "is constructed simply on the values" of human rights, but she said that "France has not renounced its role as the country of human rights," and that the French people "know that human rights serve a purpose." There has been talk that Mr. Sarkozy would like to move Ms. Yade to another job, perhaps as one of the leaders of his party's legislative list for the European Parliament.

Others were quick to defend her and the job, including the leader of the party's deputies in the National Assembly, Jean-Franí§ois Copé, who said the job was useful. Hélí¨ne Flautre, a Green European legislator who leads that Parliament's human rights commission, criticized Mr. Kouchner, calling his remarks "intolerable" and "scandalous." Pierre Haski, writing for the Web site Rue89, said Mr. Kouchner put "Utopianism in foreign policy on trial, which is, implicitly, the proof of his own conversion to a ‘Sarko-compatible' diplomacy."

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