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15th Aug 2020

France distances itself from Kouchner human rights remarks

The French EU presidency has distanced itself from controversial remarks on human rights by French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, while defending France's foreign policy record at the EU helm.

"There's a permanent contradiction between human rights and the foreign policy of a country, even of France," Mr Kouchner told French daily Le Parisien on Wednesday (10 December).

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"One cannot direct the foreign policy of a country based only on human rights. To govern a country one obviously forgoes a certain saintliness."

He also said that he had made "a mistake" in creating a special French secretary of state for human rights in 2007.

However, a spokesperson for the EU presidency, currently held by France, suggested the comments could be put down to the fact that the foreign minister was a human rights campaigner himself once.

"It's a personal question for him [Mr Kouchner]. He was a humanitarian activist before he became foreign minister. Maybe he thought he could have the same policies as foreign minister," French presidency spokeswoman Marine de Carne told EUobserver on Wednesday (10 December).

"It's also a problem in his ministry. He's saying the problem is to have a separate office for human rights," she added. "There's no 'Mr or Mrs for human rights' in the EU."

Mr Kouchner worked as a doctor for the Red Cross during the Nigerian civil war in 1968 and co-founded the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres in 1971 before taking up his current post last year.

But his remarks - coming on the 60th anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration on Human Rights - caused disappointment in the NGO community.

"Kouchner saying this on this very day is a faux pas. He should rather have spoken out on the urgent need to protect people in danger around the world," Human Rights Watch campaigner Veronika Szente Goldston said.

"I disagree there is a 'permanent contradiction' - it's a false dichotomy. Human rights must form an integral part of foreign policy and these interests often go hand-in-hand. If you pursue human rights goals abroad this helps to create lasting stability and security."

Values audit

France has had a mixed record in its foreign policy ethics during the time it has held the six-month chairmanship of the EU.

President Nicolas Sarkozy annoyed trade giant China by meeting the Dalai Lama, Tibet's leader-in-exile on 6 December, but had earlier snubbed him in the run up to the Beijing Olympics and attended the opening of the games despite China's violent crackdown on Tibet protestors.

Mr Sarkozy and Mr Kouchner pushed for the re-opening of EU-Russia partnership talks in November even though Russia remains in violation of a French-brokered ceasefire in Georgia.

The French presidency, together with French career diplomat and the EU's envoy to central Asia, Pierre Morel, advocated closer EU relations with hardline governments in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the sake of energy security and supply corridors to NATO in Afghanistan.

France also backed the launch of a new EU trade deal with its historic ally, Serbia, which was vetoed by the Netherlands due to Belgrade's non-compliance with the Hague in its efforts to round up those accused of war crimes.

"It's a question of balance - you have to be firm, but obviously you need to keep the door open to dialogue, so that countries don't feel excluded. I don't think we changed the balance in terms of [EU] relations with certain countries," France's Ms de Carne said.

EU adolescence

Analysts say French impact on EU foreign policy is hard to gauge, as the 27 member states still handle most of their external relations bilaterally, despite ideas on creating a European army and European diplomatic service at some point in the future.

"[EU foreign policy] needs a big success before we can definitively say that it has reached some sort of maturity," the International Institute of Strategic Studies' Raffaello Pantucci told this website.

"Kouchner is the French foreign minister and I am sure that not everyone in Europe would agree with him."

"The challenge - which the EU has not yet resolved - is to find a way of calibrating these different interests and concerns [national priorities and common values] in a way that is effective and consistent," the European Council on Foreign Relations' Anthony Dworkin said.

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