Kosovo was the first time the former French Foreign Minister assumed leadership as an international official after a long career in French politics and international campaigning as co-founder of Doctors without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières, MSF) and Médecins du Monde.
As a politician, Kouchner, a Socialist government minister (1988-1992, 1997-1999) pleaded for western interventions in the Balkan war, without success, until Kosovo. NATO intervened in Kosovo without a green light from the UN, but after Security Council resolution 1244 of 10 June 1999, UNMIK, the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, was established. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, appointed Bernard Kouchner as his Special Representative and head of UNMIK.
Amid violence and chaos, Kouchner assembled a closely knit team for the new mission. Among his close collaborators in Pristina were Nadia Younes and Jean-Selim Kanaan, who both lost their lives in the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003.
Kouchner participated recently in a ceremony in Brussels when the main conference room of UNRIC, the UN Information Center in Brussels, was named the Nadia Younes Conference Room in honour of the late UN Official by her former colleagues in the UN Departement of Public Information.
The atmosphere has radically changed
Árni Snævarr, Information Officer at UNRIC, talked to Mr. Kouchner on this occasion about lessons learned 15 years after Kouchner‘s leading role in establishing the UN administration in the region.
Bernard Kouchner : “You are right, 1999 – 2014 is a long time but in a different perspective it isn´t, because for the peoples in the region and the people that fought each other about the definition of frontiers and for the nationalism that now seems to be on the rise, it is not long. One can say that this is not at all finished, but the way the dialogue between former enemies, Serbs and Kosovars, is conducted now, one can say that it is a big success for the United Nations. It is not over - but the atmosphere has radically changed. I was in Kosovo two months ago and it has changed a lot, of course largely because of money coming from Europe – one should not forget its role. All of this happened in our backyard, within two hours flight from all European capitals.
I think one can praise the tenacity of the UN. We governed in the place of those who were supposed to, which was Yougoslavia at the end of the day, but which was at the time disintegrating.
«It didn´t mean anything»
So we arrived in 1999 on the basis of Resolution 1244 of the Security Council, which referred to « Substantial autonomy ». What does that mean? Nothing! And we more or less did not define it so we wouldn´t break any taboos, or challenge international laws. I was there for two years and we soon realized that the two groups would not be reconciliated right away and time was needed, a long time, perhaps a generation. So we created a government – which was not foreseen in the resolution! In this case a taboo had to be broken and we established a government of two entities , on one hand the UN and on the other hand the others, including both Kosovars and Serbs. This improved little by little the atmosphere and facilitated dialogue but then it dragged on and on and on…. And legally in terms of international law Kosovo was still a part of Serbia and Yugoslavia. And we knew that this wasn´t possible. Then there was the report of Martti Ahtisaari, which said in substance “this isn´t possible“, exactly what we, the people in the field, knew all along.
I had to try to explain this to the Security Council every two months, not least to the Russians and the Chinese :
- We cannot do otherwise.
- Yes but this is not according to the law.
- Yes it is not the law, but what if you have to kill everyone to apply the law?
-Now you see!“
“Too much nationalism means war“
Kouchner is, like many others, concerned about the rising nationalism. Talking about the Ukraine, he acknowledges that in some cases there are people who simply do not want to live together in the same state.
“The problem is the following: Are you willing to use all your moral, practical and even military power? Is one willing to do anything to make people live together even at the cost of terrible battles with a number of deaths. I am not sure.“
“I remember quite well the words of François Mitterrand in his last speech to the parliament in Strasbourg. He said: “A bit of nationalism is the expression of our pride, our culture and is necessary. Too much nationalism means war.“ This still holds true. One sees that in the Ukraine, and more or less everywhere, and I think that Kosovo is an example that deserves meditation but “hélas!“, unfortunately “history is without a memory“ and people pass to the next issue, and at this time it is football that dominates the news. And I am going to finish by talking about football, my dear friend.
Football is the essence of globalization. Everyone, everywhere is talking about it, everyone knows the players, the stars. In Africa, South America, Asia and Europe, everywhere! And what has been happening? The ones who think they know everything and even invented football, the English, the Portuguese, the Spanish and the French are being challenged by newer nations. Ok maybe not the French, maybe not yet, but let´s see, let´s see!! In any case the big European nations are not anymore the centre of the world of football, and there is a lesson to be learned from that!“
The UN needs activists
When we approach the neverending story of UN and Security Council reform, Kouchner says that his country has worked on that issue for a long time, but that it wasn´t easy because there was no consensus on which countries would be the new candidates for permanent seats on the Security Council. Nigeria would not accept South-Africa, as the African continents representative, and vice-versa and so on and so forth.
However, he pointed out that after all the many parts of the UN System, many agencies, the General Assembly and so on, worked quite well. “Let´s not break the instrument. The only forum where the whole world is represented is the United Nations system.“
However, he says it is a “scandal“ that the Security Council has not reacted forcefully to the situation in Syria.
“Today as we honor the memory of the late Nadia Younes in this conference room named after her, we should remember that people like Nadia, Jean-Sélim Kanaan and Fiona Watson (who died in the bomb attack on the UN HQ in Baghdad in 2003) they fought like activists within the system of the United Nations for rights to be upheld. For the end of violence, violence against women and violence against men, cultural and religious violence, as well as armed violence. There will always be people like that, even those who are dead because their spirit lives on. Yes, you are right that we need reform, but what we need most is people who believe in the UN and realize that the loss would be irreperable if it would dissolve and die like the Leage of Nations before World War 2.“
The attack on the UN in Baghdad: A suicide bomber attacked the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 killling 22 and wounding more than 100. Among the dead were Sérgio Viera de Mello, the UN Secretary-General´s Special Representative in Iraq, Nadia Younes, his Chief of Staff, and political advisers Fiona Watson and Jean-Sélim Kanaan.
Former colleagues of Ms. Younes in the UN Department of Public Information named the main conference room of UNRIC, the UN Regional Information Centre in Brussels, after her at a commemoration on 25 June 2014. Younes joined the United Nations in 1970 and from 1974, she worked with the Department of Public Information in various capacities including Spokeswoman for the President of the General Assembly, Deputy-Spokesperson of the Secretary General and Director of the Department´s Media Division. She later served as the UN Chief of Protocol, served with Mr. Kouchner in Kosovo and as an Executive Director in charge of external relations at WHO. In May 2003, she was seconded by WHO to act as Chief of Staff for the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello in Baghdad, where she was killed in the attack 19 August 2003.
See also UNRIC Info Point/Library Backgrounder on Kosovo.
Photos: 1) Main photo: Bernard Kouchner at UNRIC 25 June 2014. UNRIC/Sébastien Pensis.
2 Secretary-General Kofi Annan (right) is greeted by Bernard Kouchner (France), Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Kosovo. 13 October 1999. UN/Milton Grant.
3. Kofi Annan (centre) and Bernard Kouchner (left), walking with a crowd of children at the opening of a school by the Secretary-General in Pec, Kosovo, 14 October 1999. UN/Milton Grant.
4. Kouchner and Annan review a portion of the destruction endured in Pec. UN/Milton Grant.
5. Bernard Kouchner as France´s Minister for Foreign Affairs at the Security Council Chamber, prior to a Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, 11 May 2009. UN/Mark Garten.
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