IN A MAJOR turnabout, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said recently he had been wrong to press for a new post of minister of state for human rights within the foreign ministry. Kouchner co-founded the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders. But he has come to understand, he explained, that "there is a permanent contradiction between human rights and the foreign policy of a state, even in France."
Kouchner's change of heart originates in a parochial French squabble: President Nicolas Sarkozy has turned against his Senegal-born minister for human rights, Rama Yade, because she declined to leave her post and run for the European Parliament, as Sarkozy requested. But the issue has reverberations in many countries, including the United States.
Successive American administrations have been no less ambivalent than France about the proper role of human rights in government policy. President Gerald Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, were initially reluctant to include a so-called human rights basket in the 1975 Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union. But inclusion of that "soft" provision on human rights helped set off processes that led to the peaceful collapse of communism. This was a case of human rights serving US national interests - perhaps more effectively than the entire arsenal of nuclear warheads.
In the last few years, however, there have been several disturbing examples of the US national interest - as conventionally defined - standing in the way of actions to defend human rights. The ongoing genocide in Darfur is the most blatant example. China, as a major investor in Sudanese oil, protects the genocidal Sudanese regime at the UN Security Council. The United States and its European allies have gone only so far in trying to halt the Darfur genocide - or the current atrocities in eastern Congo, the Sri Lankan government's abuses of civilians in its counter-insurgency war against the Tamil Tigers, or the horrific rights violations by the military dictatorship in Burma.
There is now an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, and President-elect Barack Obama is also expected to have someone in his National Security Council responsible for human rights. But the problem illuminated by Kouchner's candid remark is not really about bureaucratic posts. It is about how willing the governments of the world are to protect vulnerable populations from their own governments. We hope Obama will stretch the definition of the national interest to include a panoply of actions, short of war, to defend universal human rights.