Bernard Kouchner was one of the co-founders of Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) – Doctors without Borders - and Médecins du Monde – Doctors of the World. The doctors involved in these globally-based organizations have done outstanding work in bringing medical knowledge, procedures and services - that the inhabitants of economically advanced nations take for granted - to parts of the world where the medical infrastructure is inadequate or entirely absent. Kouchner has led an amazing life that reflects his deep and abiding passion for social justice.
Kouchner was born on November 1, 1939 in Avignon France. His father was Jewish and his paternal grandparents perished in the Nazi German concentration camps during World War II. It was the realization of the enormity of the Holocaust that inspired Kouchner to dedicate his energies to humanitarian efforts. As a young man, he had an abiding interest in medicine, and chose gastroenterology as his specialty.
In regards to his personal life, Kouchner has three children, Julie, Camille and Antoine, by his first wife, Évelyne Pisier, a professor of law, and one child, Alexandre, by his current wife Christine Ockrent, a television journalist.
He has been involved throughout his adult life with issues of social justice and has functioned in leadership capacities not only within the medical profession but also in politics and government. Kouchner has never shied away from controversy when issues that reflected his principles were at stake.
He was an outspoken member of the French Communist Party (FCP) while in his twenties and was expelled from the party in 1966 when he attempted to radically transform the party’s leadership. During the political turmoil in France in 1968 earmarked by student-led revolts, Kouchner headed the medical faculty strike committee at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris.
In that same year he worked as a physician for the Red Cross in Biafra in the midst of the devastating civil war that engulfed Nigeria. His experiences there had such a profound effect upon him that he was motivated to help bring into being the MSF – it was founded on December 20, 1971. The inspiration for the creation of the MSF came from the frustration of the doctors who volunteered their services to treat the victims of two horrendous global events – the Civil War in Biafra as mentioned previously and the tidal wave that decimated the people of what is now the country of Bangladesh. The groups responding to these catastrophes were frustrated by the shortcomings of international aid as it was configured. They also felt that by bending to the will of individual nations, their efforts to provide medical relief in a timely fashion were often thwarted. The organization, Doctors of the World was subsequently founded in 1980.
Kouchner also voluntarily offered his services and expertise during the siege of the Naba refugee camp in East Beirut Lebanon during that country’s Civil War (1975-1990). He took great risks to his own personal safety and worked closely with Shia cleric Imam Musa al-Sadr.
Kouchner has had a remarkable political career in France. His political experience is briefly enumerated below –
• In 1988, he became Secretary of State for Humanitarian Action.
• During the Presidency of Francois Mitterrand (1981-1995), he served as Minister of Health (1992).
• Between 1993 and 1997, he was a member of the European Parliament.
• In 1997, while Lionel Jospin was Prime Minister, he was again chosen for the post of Minister of Health.
• From 2007 until 2010 he served as the French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.
On account of his considerable experience not only in government, but most importantly in regard to his humanitarian efforts around the world, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan nominated Kouchner as the second UN Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). In this position, he provided the leadership to guide UN efforts to rebuild the civil and economic infrastructure in Kosovo following the devastating aftermath of a protracted and devastating conflict. His efforts proved invaluable; he was ultimately replaced on 21 January 2001 by Danish Social Democrat Hans Hækkerup.
Following these involvements, he was chosen to be the French Minister of Health for the third time in his career; until, the 2002 elections in France led to his displacement. He also was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Pristina for his services to Kosovo.
Kouchner has spoken out repeatedly against social injustice wherever it was evident. In early 2003, he argued for the removal of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, but he made it clear that he did not advocate using war to unseat him claiming that the welfare of the people of Iraq should be the primary focus. He detailed his arguments in an editorial that appeared in the Le Monde in February 2003. He proposed that Hussein should be removed via a UN action using diplomatic means.
In regards to the current impasse over Iran’s nuclear program, Kouchner published his comments and responded to an interview in September of 2007 in which he stated, “We will negotiate until the end.” Although he went on to warn of the possibility of war, he claimed later that he was not advocating armed conflict.
Kouchner has dedicated his adult life to serving those in need. His major contribution to the world is not only through his direct involvement as a caring physician to those in dire circumstances but also through his participation in the creation of the MSF whose humanitarian efforts have saved countless lives across the globe and assisted countless survivors of both natural and human-caused disasters.