The Legitimacy of Humanitarian Actions and their Media Representation

Ethical Perspectives 7 (1):3-16 (2000)
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The question of humanitarian action appeared in France in the public arena at the beginning of the 1990s, almost twenty years after the creation of `Médecins sans frontières' by Bernard Kouchner and Xavier Emmanuelli. The humanitarian debate in France developed in a political context marked by two essential features: on the one hand, the bureaucratization of humanitarian actions with its own secretary of state, an office occupied by Bernard Kouchner between 1988 and 1993 and, on the other hand, the war in ex-Yugoslavia, first in Croatia, then in Bosnia.One can distinguish two partly overlapping phases in the course of the previous ten years: initially there was a phase of media enthusiasm for humanitarian actions, and particularly for the figure of Bernard Kouchner, but this gradually gave way to a wave of intense criticism in the major Paris newspapers and journals such as Le Monde, Libération, and the journals Le débat and Esprit.We should note that this criticism is formulated primarily by intellectuals, most of whom tend more towards left-wing views. But it is also voiced, in a somewhat paradoxical fashion, by certain major figures in the field of humanitarian action, such as Rony Brauman, former chairman of `Médecins sans frontières' . Many of these internal critics continue pursuing their activities within humanitarian organizations while at the same time questioning the forms or results of humanitarian action. In the many texts he published at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, Bernard Kouchner himself, while defending humanitarian action, took these criticisms into account and recognized their validity by incorporating them into his discourse of justification.These criticisms appear to reach a culmination in 1993-94, after which the debate started to wind down and was replaced by others, particularly the social question. One could argue, however, that criticism won out over praise, at least in intellectual circles: from 1995 until today, humanitarian action is invoked mainly in order to criticize it



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