Friday, May 18, 2007

Kosovo, Kouchner and Killing Field Fans

Seven years ago, I interviewed Bernard Kouchner in Pristina. I reproduce this story because it is now doubly, indeed triply relevant. Word is that Sarkozy is appointing Kouchner as Foreign Minister, which will be, to say the least interesting times in the Quai D'Orsay and elsewhere. Secondly, Kosovar independence is in the news, and finally the subject of humanitarian intervention makes some leftists fervent fans and apologists for genocide.

Here it goes. The Financial Times (London) September 15 2000

Maverick Viceroy By Ian Williams

In the summer of 1999, there was only one restaurant open in the chaos of Pristina - a pizzeria. I suggested to Bernard Kouchner that even his many critics had to admit that dining out in Kosovo had improved immeasurably during his year as the United Nation's viceroy there.
He liked my title for him, but of the innumerable bars and restaurants opened by the Albanians returning after their deportation, he could only say: "The cuisine is still not good - nor the service."
So did the "special representative of the secretary general" feel secure, sitting in the open, shaded portion of parkland sequestrated by the Pristina Park Hotel for its outdoor restaurant?
"No, my guards are over there. You know, I don't want to die. They have been going to the bathroom with me for a year now. This is not a relaxed job."
Even so, the waiters were unimpressed; we signalled vainly for attention.
While we waited, we discussed Kouchner's transformation from manning the barricades of Paris in 1968 to his becoming almost absolute ruler of a Balkan province. His period as French health minister in the Jospin government made him a respectable choice when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan needed someone to cope with the pressures of Kosovo.
Kouchner sees no inconsistencies along his career path. "This is a huge step forward for international society because we protected the minority across the borders of a state.
"Think of East Timor. We waited and demonstrated for 20 years. Now, the right to intervene is a real right. As internationalists, our generation, we have done well. After Auschwitz, after Cambodia, we did it. It was the century of genocide, and now we have found the way to protect minorities. A tribunal is fine, but it is always too late to prevent the crimes."
He jumps about in his seat with a physical agility that matches his mental agility. "When I set up Medecins Sans Frontie`res, I never considered that the humanitarian world was so different from the political; they were different aspects of the same thing. To protect people from murder, is it political or humanitarian? When the boat people were dying in the China Sea, which was it? We have to take humanitarian intervention step by step.
"It was impossible 10 years ago to think of confronting the Yugoslav army. But the intervention is still a success. It is a change in the old international diplomacy, based on sovereignty."
At last a waiter deigns to take notice. Fish dominates the menu. Since it is a long drive to the coast from landlocked Kosovo, he insists on seeing the product. The waiter brings a tray, and Kouchner pokes the contents suspiciously with his finger.
"It is fresh?" he demands, before deciding on Levruga ("sea wolf", according to the translation in the menu). Not wanting to be caught ruling a country under the influence of alcohol, we choose mineral water. Expecting a long wait, we sip the water and chew on the local bread, dipped in olive oil.
"It is good to have fish," he says. "They eat meat three times a day here." I agree - even a carnivore can be daunted by "cattle soup" on local menus.
Kouchner is small and looks younger than his 60 years. Some people who deal with him often complain of arrogance, but anyone who knows the UN bureaucracy accepts that it took someone of his strength of character to break the rules. Resolution 1244, which set up his administration, repeats the fiction of Yugoslav sovereignty and most UN bureaucrats would have taken it very seriously.
"Yes, I took it very seriously - in my own way." He smiles. "It was very important, but . . ."
His train of thought is derailed as he pitches forward. The plastic garden chairs we are using are not strong enough to cope with his hyperactivity.
He picks himself up and continues: "Yes, states are absolutely sovereign, and we have to respect their sovereignty - when the state is respectable, when it is respectful of its minorities. When they are killing their own people, they are not respectable."
And as for the UN: "We are in charge of a state. It was impossible to refer issues to New York to the legal department, to the political department. When I went to New York the second time I was very rude - 'I don't want you to advise me,' I said, banging the table. 'I will only talk to the secretary general'.
"It helped that Kofi backed me up. He knew what he was doing; he was very clever. We had lunch on the 38th floor of the UN and he told me: 'I did not choose you because you were the most disciplined player.' So I said, 'OK, you're not disappointed then?' "
His defiance of bureaucratic caution led him to rescind Belgrade's apartheid-style legislation, open a new Kosovo postal service, make the D-mark Kosovo's currency, and put customs officials at the borders.
Most Security Council members appreciate the achievements. Others complain: "The Chinese, not so much, but the Russians write a lot of letters," he comments, adding laconically: "We used to reply."
By now the fish has arrived, tastefully displayed on a large plate with a few basic vegetables. With an air of pleasant surprise, hebrandishes a first forkful. "It's good, isn't it?"
It is.
I ask whether Kosovo will ever be part of Serbia again. He pauses,and has a rare lapse into tactful diplomacy. "Let us say, they willnever come back to the former situation, and I will do the maximum for them. Substantial autonomy must be set up; I believe that despite the fact that I favour independence, this step-by-step way is the only way."
The revenge killings of Serbs led many cynics to conclude that the intervention and his reign in Kosovo is a failure. This is not his first encounter with the unpleasantness of the interface between aspirationand reality.
"What about the Kurds? We protected those stupid bastards there! Barzani and Talibani and so on. Exactly the same thing! I spent months and months working in the hospital. I met them again afterwards, when they started killing each other by the thousands. I was really disgusted."
That starts another line of thought. "But now we are the only obstacle between the Albanians and independence. In a few months they may consider us an enemy."
Wasn't he disappointed at the continuing murders?
Once again realism triumphed. "If you wanted to choose a good example for humanitarian intervention, you wouldn't choose Kosovo. Here the victims are not angels, they are Albanians - very, very tough, with a tradition of revenge and mafia. And then we discovered that, hidden by the threatened minority, there was another minority to be protected.
"But do you believe the Rwandese were very good people? They were not! You cannot choose whom you're supposed to help. The only rule is to be on the side of the victim."
At this point, the hotel decides to pipe the local radio station through its PA system. "Stop that bloody radio!" he bellows, more as an irate customer than an angry potentate.
He has found his year in Pristina, "very tiring, very frustrating, and very interesting. The people around me are fantastic, they are militants, not UN diplomats. Highly engaged, concerned and devoted. But then it is frustrating, because the situation is frustrating, the UN resolution is frustrating."
Now, he is ready to move on - but not until after the local elections he has scheduled for next month.
"I am not a rabbit or a rat to run in front of the boot," he declares.
He has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Sadaka Ogata as UN high commissioner for refugees. "It's a good job," he admits. "If I were in charge, I would transform it. I would look to prevention, I would not be waiting at the border for the refugees so that we could put them in camps. Here, I would apply the right to interfere."
I provoke him with some recent statements from the UNHCR on the need to maintain a distinction between "internally displaced persons" and legal "refugees" who have crossed borders. He rises to the bait.
"That's ridiculous - an IDP is exactly the same for me. All because of the sovereignty of the state. It is the same fight," he declares, and repeats: "The fish is good, eh?" as he finishes, leaving only the bones and head on the plate.
An hour later than scheduled, we drive away with his armed escort to Government House, where he holds court in the former Serbian headquarters. Kouchner is an interventionist at heart and, in the modern world, that means courting the media.

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