In Box

France Without Illusions

The French president vowed to take on dictators everywhere. Has he now given up on human rights entirely?

These are tough times for idealists -- even in France, birthplace of modern humanitarianism.

Just two years ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to make human rights an unprecedented centerpiece of his foreign policy, vowing in his victory speech "to reach out to all those in the world ... who are persecuted by tyrants and dictators." And for a time, his agenda seemed to be off to a good start. Sarkozy chose as foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, cofounder of Doctors Without Borders and long one of Europe's most eloquent proponents of humanitarian action. They created a new international human rights cabinet -- the world's first -- and installed a 30-year-old Muslim woman of Senegalese origin, Rama Yade, to run it.

So it was a stunning moment last December when Kouchner suddenly declared the effort a failure. "There is a permanent contradiction between human rights and the foreign policy of a state, even in France," he told an interviewer. "Running a country obviously draws you away from a certain angélisme [utopian view] of the world."

This from someone who had spent the last 40 years trying to save civilians caught up in nasty wars from Biafra to Darfur, a man whose legacy includes a Nobel Peace Prize for the organization he founded to act on just those principles he was now renouncing. Even the much-celebrated human rights cabinet was "a mistake," Kouchner said. In June, Sarkozy eliminated Yade's job altogether and shifted her to secretary of state for sports.

What happened? Was France admitting that the only workable model for foreign policy is blunt pragmatism? And if France can't carry out a human rights-based foreign policy, can anyone? It is interesting to note that Kouchner's comment drew relatively little outrage from anywhere in the French political spectrum -- or for that matter in the human rights community. As if a certain fatalism had set in. As if he'd stated the obvious.

In Kouchner's statement, there was certainly what appeared to be a degree of personal annoyance with the younger and more popular Yade. But there was also a discouraged sense that his human rights agenda had been mugged by reality.

In the preceding months, Kouchner (shown at right in 1981) had registered a series of defeats. He had failed to convince Sarkozy of the need for strong European intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's civil war, despite the threat of a mounting civilian death toll. He had lost a diplomatic battle in the United Nations after the Burmese regime refused to let Western aid into the country following Hurricane Nargis. Kouchner had wanted the U.N. Security Council to specifically cite Burma's failure to uphold its "responsibility to protect," seeing the measure as a step toward potential intervention. But it was a lost cause. Russia and China were ready to veto.

Indeed, by last year, Kouchner had come to see Russia and China as reliable protectors of repressive regimes, using their Security Council seats to ensure that the likes of Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe were not hit with sanctions over human rights abuses. "There has been a backlash," he once told me.

Gone were the 1990s, when Russia and China were wallflowers and the Western world could lead spectacular operations in Iraqi Kurdish areas, East Timor, and Kosovo to halt unfolding human rights disasters. Now Sarkozy, the proponent of challenging "tyrants and dictators" everywhere, talks about an era of "relative powers," when the West's humanitarian influence is balanced out by other forces.

But is Sarkozy even trying? By the time of his first trip to Moscow, in late 2007, his campaign rhetoric about the "intolerable killing of journalists" had completely vanished. Even after Russia invaded Georgia last year, Sarkozy went to great lengths to keep the relationship on track. Similarly, in 2008 Sarkozy threatened to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games if China didn't start serious talks with the Dalai Lama. Weeks later, after major French contracts with China seemed in doubt, he backed down.

So who will defend human rights now? Even for Russia and China, human rights can still come in handy -- for example, when the priority is to put pressure on a country like Iran over its nuclear program. But giving Russia and China veto power over humanitarian intervention isn't quite what Kouchner was talking about when he used to invoke, in the old days, "the duty of international meddling." The world about which Kouchner said those words simply doesn't exist anymore, and for once he seems to have no answers about the world he finds himself in.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

DOMINIQUE FAGET/Getty Images

In Box

The FP Quiz

Are you a globalization junkie? Then test your knowledge of global trends, economics, and politics with 8 questions about how the world works.

1. After China, which country executed the most people last year?
a) Iran                                  
b) Saudi Arabia                
c) United States

2. Which country spends the most on its military, per person?
a) China       
b) Israel      
c) Singapore

3. What percentage of the world's languages are at risk of going extinct?
a) 10 percent                    
b) 26 percent                    
c) 42 percent

4. What percentage of Silicon Valley tech companies founded between 1995 and 2005 were started by immigrants?
a) 23 percent                    
b) 34 percent
c) 52 percent

5. Which country's citizens can travel to the most countries and territories without a visa?
a) Canada
b) Denmark
c) Vatican City

6. In how many languages is Google available?
a) 43
b) 87
c) 127

7. Which African country has the largest U.S. troop presence?
a) Egypt
b) Djibouti
c) Kenya

8. North Korea recently imprisoned two U.S. journalists. Which other country is holding a foreign journalist in custody?
a) United States
b) Saudi Arabia
c) Singapore

 

Answers to the FP Quiz

1) A, Iran. In 2008, China had at least 1,718 executions, followed by Iran with 346. According to Amnesty International, the real numbers might be even higher. Saudi Arabia was the No. 3 executioner, with 102 killed, generally by public beheading. The United States, whose methods include electrocution and lethal injection, was No. 4, with 37 executions.

2) B, Israel. Israel spent about $2,300 per person on its military in 2008, some $400 more per person than No. 2 United States, according to The Economist. Tiny Singapore was No. 4, spending about $1,650 per person. When it comes to total military expenditure, however, no country comes close to the United States, which spent $607 billion in 2008, or 41.5 percent of the world's total, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

3) C, 42 percent. Of the world's approximately 6,000 languages, 2,498 are known to be at risk of dying out, according to UNESCO. This means that children are no longer learning these languages or are speaking them only in restricted settings, such as within the home. One of the latest languages to go extinct is the Alaskan language of Eyak, whose last known speaker died in 2008.

4) C, 52 percent. Of the Silicon Valley science and technology companies founded from 1995 to 2005, 52.4 percent had a chief executive or lead technologist who was foreign-born, according to research by Duke University's Vivek Wadhwa. The figure for the entire United States was 25.3 percent. Meanwhile, far more skilled workers are waiting for U.S. visas than are available, leading to concern that the United States could lose its competitive edge.

5) B, Denmark. Danes have the most freedom to travel -- they could enter 157 countries and territories without a visa as of Sept. 1, 2008, according to consulting firm Henley & Partners. Other nationalities facing the least red tape when traveling abroad include Finns, Irish, and Portuguese (156 visa-free countries and territories), and Americans, Belgians, Germans, and Swedes (155). Countries whose people are relatively stuck: Afghanistan (22 visa-free destinations); Iraq (23); and Iran, Pakistan, and Somalia (25).

6) C, 127. As of July 31, Google's home page, messages, and buttons were offered in 127 interface languages, from commonly spoken tongues such as Hindi and Japanese to more obscure languages such as Basque and Tonga. Also available are Esperanto, a constructed language, and the made-up languages of Klingon and Pirate, the latter of which turns the "Advanced Search" button into "Use Me Better Spyglass." Meanwhile, Google Translate can convert English into 42 languages.

7) B, Djibouti. As of March 31, 1,294 active-duty U.S. military personnel were in Djibouti, a former French colony located at the south entrance to the Red Sea, near the Horn of Africa and close enough to monitor terrorist networks in Somalia and Yemen. Last fall, the newly created U.S. Africa Command (Africom) assumed control of operations in Djibouti. Many Africans are suspicious of Africom, given the continent's colonial history and Washington's Cold War practice of supporting autocratic regimes.

8) A, United States. Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance Iraqi photographer working for Reuters, has been held in U.S. custody in Iraq since Sept. 2, 2008, on the grounds that he is a security threat, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the United States has detained dozens of journalists, at least 12 of whom were held for prolonged periods. None of the journalists was convicted of any charge.