For nearly two weeks we have witnessed the callous indifference of Myanmar’s ruling junta to the victims of Cyclone Nargis. The regime’s grotesque failure to permit more than a trickle of aid has stimulated calls for the United Nations to compel Myanmar to provide access for international relief efforts.
Whether such calls are answered could determine the survival of hundreds of thousands of people spared from the initial inundation but clinging to life without food, clean water, shelter and access to lifesaving medicines. It also will speak volumes about how we conceive of state sovereignty in the 21st century—and whether we are prepared to act on our convictions.
At the 2005 World Summit in New York, the 192 U.N. member states unanimously approved a new international doctrine known as “the responsibility to protect” (often abbreviated R2P). It establishes a norm of contingent sovereignty. When a government violates its fundamental obligations, either by committing mass atrocities against its people or allowing them to be committed, the international community may intervene to save lives.
The motivation behind R2P was to prevent future Rwandas, Srebenicas and Kosovos, where armed factions abetted by murderous regimes slaughtered thousands of unarmed citizens. Implementing the new doctrine has proven more challenging than enunciating it, as the ongoing conflict in Darfur attests.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner ignited a firestorm by invoking the R2P principle for Myanmar. He called for a U.N. Security Council resolution to force the junta to accept humanitarian aid. Predictably, China and Russia quashed the proposal. U.N. officials themselves fear losing what little access to Myanmar they currently enjoy, and even the United States and United Kingdom remain lukewarm.
Kouchner’s cause is not hopeless. But its champions will need to answer crucial questions about the legal, political and practical feasibility of their argument.
Does the doctrine apply to Myanmar’s situation? The main critique of Kouchner’s proposal is that U.N. member states endorsed the R2P for a narrow range of contingencies, specifically “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.” Any effort to broaden the doctrine would surely stimulate violent opposition among developing countries, congenitally worried about outside intervention. This could undermine the consensus on R2P’s application to genocide.
And yet the longer the junta obstructs the flow of lifesaving aid, the clearer it becomes that the regime is willing to inflict unconscionable suffering to retain its grip on power. By transforming a natural disaster into a manmade one, and condemning tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands to death, the junta can be charged with “crimes against humanity.”
Are there any diplomatic prospects for a Security Council resolution invoking R2P? Prospects might be less dire than conventional wisdom suggests, provided that the groundwork is laid behind the scenes with China, Myanmar’s longstanding protector.
With the approach of the Olympics, Beijing—now facing its own humanitarian challenge responding to Monday’s earthquake—wants to be seen as a responsible international stakeholder rather than one indifferent to human suffering. It might be persuaded to bring pressure on Myanmar of the sort that it has occasionally exerted on another paranoid and secretive dictatorship, North Korea. With China’s acquiescence to a Security Council resolution, Moscow probably would fall in line.
Regardless of Chinese and Russian obstructionism, the United States, Britain and France should submit a U.N. resolution insisting on immediate humanitarian access. This would force Beijing and Moscow to go on the record about their indifference to human dignity. And it would leave the U.S. and allies with the option of acting outside the council but in the spirit of the U.N. Charter, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did in halting Serb ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Would invoking R2P make any tangible difference in bringing lifesaving aid to desperate victims in Myanmar? Or would it merely prove to be a feel-good gesture? This is perhaps the trickiest question.
Ideally, a U.N. resolution (and Chinese prodding) would persuade the junta to change course, improving access for the delivery of relief aid under U.N. coordination, including unimpeded movement of international humanitarian actors. Things would get more complicated with active resistance in Myanmar, given the limitations of air drops and the potential for violent military confrontation. But the international community must be prepared to call the regime’s bluff.
The Myanmar crisis—like the conflict in Darfur—shows the limits that sovereignty places on international action to prevent large-scale loss of human life at the hands of irresponsible governments. Three years ago, U.N. member states joined in one voice to recognize that sovereignty provides no license for inexcusable behavior. The time has come to act on that conviction.
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