Bernard Kouchner Biography

Physician and humanitarian aid worker

Born November 1, 1939, in Avignon, France; married Christine Ockrent (a television journalist); children: one son. Education: Earned medical degree in France, c. 1968.

Addresses: Office —Médecins du Monde, 62 rue Marcadet, 75018 Paris, France.


Worked as a gastroenterologist at Cochin Hospital; volunteer doctor with the International Red Cross, late 1960s; founded Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), 1971, and served as president until 1978; founded Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), 1979, and served as president, 1980-88; became French Minister of State with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, 1988-91; became Minister of State for humanitarian action with the office of the Prime Minister, 1988-91; Minister of State for humanitarian action in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1991-93; Minister of Health and Humanitarian Action, March 1993-99; chief of the United Nations Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), July 1999-January 2001.

Awards: Dag Hammarskjold Prize for Human Rights, 1979; Prix Europa, 1984.


Ahousehold name in France, Bernard Kouchner is the physician who founded the humanitarian-relief group Médecins Sans Frontières, or

Bernard Kouchner
Doctors Without Borders, in 1971. Known for his high-profile French government posts, Kouchner also directed the United Nations mission in war-torn Kosovo between 1999 and 2001. His publicity-savvy tactics have sometimes made him the target of criticism, but his zeal in helping the world's most helpless is unmatched. "It is Kouchner, more than anyone else, who taught nongovernmental aid agencies to use the political and fund-raising power of the media," asserted Michael Ignatieff in a New York Times profile. "Where Kouchner led with Doctors Without Borders, all modern humanitarian agencies now follow."

Kouchner was born in the southern French city of Avignon in 1939. His Jewish father's parents perished a few years later in Nazi German concentration camps, and Kouchner has said that it was this terrible crime of the Holocaust, perpetrated on the soil of a civilized Europe, which fueled a sense of personal injustice that brought him to humanitarian work. As a young man, he was naturally drawn to medicine, and became a gastroenterology specialist. Like many of his age, however, he was also active in the street demonstrations and strikes that rocked France in the spring of 1968.

After a stint at Cochin Hospital, Kouchner answered a newspaper advertisement placed by the International Red Cross that called for volunteer doctors to work in Biafra. The small nation in the Horn of Africa enjoyed a brief period of sovereignty from Nigeria at the time, but was also engaged in a vicious war to maintain it. The Red Cross needed medical personnel to help civilians caught in the crossfire. But the international aid organization also had an official policy of "silent" neutrality, refusing to comment on human-rights abuses they witnessed from either side, be it at the hands of rebels or government troops. That same policy, Kouchner knew, meant that Red Cross aid workers were among the few outsiders to witness the horrors of the Nazi extermination camps firsthand during World War II, but the organization did little to alert Germany's foes at the time. The experience in Biafra, he told Financial Times writer Robert Graham, forced him to reevaluate his belief system. "Medical school never prepared me for this: it was only about caring for patients," he told Graham. "But in Biafra I was confronted with basic questions of human justice. You couldn't stand by or remain silent about the broader context in which the humanitarian disaster was happening."

In response, Kouchner founded Doctors Without Borders with other like-minded visionaries in 1971. It was committed to providing humanitarian aid in the midst of armed conflicts, but also stepped in when natural disasters struck. One of its first full-scale missions was to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, where some 10,000 perished as a result of a devastating earthquake in December of 1972. French physicians with both an adventurous and a humanitarian streak signed up in droves, and were sent off to some of the world's most troubled spots, including Lebanon, El Salvador, Somalia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Honduras, Peru, and Guatemala. In many of those cases, the suffering was the direct result of political conflict, and Doctors Without Borders did not hesitate to alert the media to human-rights abuses committed by any of the involved parties.

Kouchner served as president of Doctors Without Borders until 1978. The following year, he organized hospital ships to aid the scores of Vietnamese refugees who were fleeing the country in rickety, overcrowded vessels and perishing in the South China Sea as a result of their quest for asylum. Aboard Kouchner's "Boat for Vietnam" were noted French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron, who had been longtime foes, but the mission came under fire for the publicity Kouchner courted; the project was even derided as the "Boat for St. Germain des Pres," a reference to the fashionable quarter of Paris where many of France's liberal elite resided. The event caused Kouchner to break with Doctors Without Borders, and he founded a similar group, Doctors of the World, in 1979. Again, he led humanitarian aid workers to some of the world's most troubled areas, and back in France worked to call attention to the plight of victims of political strife everywhere.

By then, Kouchner was so well-known a figure in France that he decided to enter politics. In 1988, he ran for a seat in the French parliament from Valenciennes, but lost. Instead, French President François Mitterrand appointed him to serve as Minister of State with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, a cabinet department. There, Kouchner was responsible for social integration, and also took a second post, attached to the office of the Prime Minister and with responsibility for humanitarian action, that same year. In 1991, he moved over to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, again holding a post that made him the country's humanitarian-action watchdog. The French press nicknamed him the "minister of indignation" for his scathing pronouncements, but Kouchner had the support of many for his missions, including that of Danielle Mitterrand, the French First Lady. Kouchner even took Madame Mitterrand to the Kurdish province of Iraq—which he had first visited with Doctors Without Borders back in 1974—in July of 1992 to show her the plight of Kurds under Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. There, their convoy was the target of a bomb that killed four, and which their own vehicle narrowly escaped.

The attack was thought to have been on orders of Hussein, and may have been in retribution for what some have viewed as Kouchner's greatest achievement: in 1991, he argued successfully for United Nations Resolution 688, by which U.N. peacekeeping forces were sent to protect Iraq's Kurdish minority. Until that time, the concept of national sovereignty had been the guiding objective in United Nations peacekeeping missions, but this one was the first in which the U.N. took a different approach. From that point forward, U.N. "humanitarian corridors" were established by peacekeeping forces in troubled regions where refugees or other victims of authoritarian regimes needed help.

Kouchner launched a national "Rice for Somalia" program in France in the early 1990s, and was credited with bringing the world's attention to the widespread famine there. His campaign asked French schoolchildren to donate packets of rice for Somalians, and Kouchner and other aid workers landed on a beach in Mogadishu with television cameras, with Kouchner carrying a sack of rice on his back. "The resulting spectacle looked less like a humanitarian rescue than an MTV video starring Kouchner," noted Sunday Times correspondent Tony Allen-Mills. "His political rivals were appalled but, once again, the French public seemed to be thrilled." Kouchner has a different approach to the subject, believing that "without photography, massacres would not exist," the New York Times profile by Ignatieff quoted him as saying. "Nothing can be done without pressure on politicians."

Kouchner continued to serve in the French cabinet, in March of 1993 taking a post as Minister of Health and Humanitarian Action. Over the next few years, he made the troubles in the former Yugoslavia his pet project, working to publicize the horrors of the ethnic-cleansing atrocities that were taking place there on a large scale. He traveled regularly to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, which suffered tremendous damage in the Balkans war during those years. His work led United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to appoint him to serve as chief of the United Nations Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in July of 1999. The post made him the highest-ranking non-military authority in Kosovo, and Kouchner's task was to restore order to the troubled southern Serbia region, which had been the site of a brutal war the year before that was quelled only when military forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) stepped in. The United Nations established a formal mission there to set up a workable local government, and broker an end to the bloodshed between Kosovo's Albanian majority and the Serb minority.

International political analysts noted that Kouchner's job was a tough one, and his tenure in Kosovo lasted just 18 months. As an administrator, he was responsible for procuring and delivering aid to some 1.4 million displaced persons, but as the head of the U.N. mission he also met regularly—under the most dangerous of conditions at times—with Kosovo Liberation Army rebels and Serb police and paramilitary groups in an effort to end the violence. Several months after taking over, he admitted it was indeed a difficult task. "How can you solve the problems of this region in eight months?" he said in an interview with Newsweek International 's Michael Glennon and Joshua Hammer. "Serbs, Albanians, and Turks have been fighting one another in this area for centuries." In the same interview, the eternally optimistic Kouchner recognized that change was not impossible. "Fifty years ago it was unimaginable that my own country and Germany would ever cooperate," he reflected.

Kouchner departed his office in the Kosovo city of Pristina and returned to France in early 2001. He continued his work as the gadfly of French foreign policy, regularly commenting on international matters and bringing media attention to the plight of the world's refugees and displaced persons. Still unofficially known as the Minister of Indignation, Kouchner admitted that he indeed took politics too personally at times. "Of course I do," he responded when Ignatieff asked him about it in the New York Times article. "I've been a human rights activist for 30 years, and here I am unable to stop people being massacred."

Though Kouchner is considered the founder of Doctors Without Borders, he took no part in the ceremony when the group earned the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize for its humanitarian work. Married to Christine Ockrent, a well-known French television journalist, he has long been the subject of rumors that he may one day make another electoral bid in France, this one for the president's office. He is the author of several books, including one that has appeared in English translation, Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal. In early 2003, when many in Europe objected to the United States' plan for military intervention to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Kouchner took what was viewed as a surprising stance for a lifelong French leftist, and supported the idea. In the Financial Times interview with Graham conducted in early 2004, he termed Hussein "a monster. The case for going to war to get rid of him was not one of weapons of mass destruction—they probably weren't there anyway. It was a question of overthrowing an evil dictator and it was right to intervene."

Indefatigable, energetic, and impressively media-savvy, Kouchner is also a runner whose morning route varies from Paris's delightful Luxembourg Gardens to some of the world's most devastated landscapes. When he ran the New York City Marathon in 1993, Runner's World profiled him, and he asserted that his dual passions—running and humanitarian work—were, in theory, not entirely incompatible. "When I see runners gathered like this today, it seems to me a symbol of what could be done," he told the magazine's John Hanc. "War is the worst side of humanity. Running is the best. And let me tell you, most of the people making war are not runners. It would be a better world if they were."



Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, Gale Group, 2001.


Economist, October 13, 1990, p. 43; July 10, 1999, p. 48.

Financial Times, September 16, 2000, p. 3; January 17, 2004, p. 14.

Independent (London, England), July 26, 1999, p. 4; October 16, 1999, p. 17.

Newsweek International, May 15, 2000, p. 74.

New York Times, August 6, 2000, p. 42.

Runner's World, December 1993, p. 36.

Sunday Times (London, England), January 10, 1993, p. 19.

Time, April 26, 2004, p. 121.

Times (London, England), July 27, 1992, p. 5; October 17, 1992, p. 14.

—Carol Brennan

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