The path of devastation cut by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar three weeks ago appears now likely to have extinguished more than 100,000 lives. Natural disasters have a way of reminding humans how helpless they can be when pitted against nature, and an earthquake that killed at least 55,000 in southwestern China 10 days later added unwelcome emphasis to the point.
China’s tragedy also took the spotlight off Myanmar, in part because journalists are actually able to cover the Chinese tragedy, whereas Myanmar’s military junta has prevented not only international journalists but international relief agencies from entering the country in any great numbers. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon won a pledge from the dictatorial regime late last week to open up to foreign aid, but it is still to be tested, and it comes after weeks of unfathomable, inexcusable stalling.
The context of these two tragedies, the differing ways they have been handled by their respective authoritarian governments, is worth pondering. China deserves enormous praise for opening up to international assistance, apparently internalizing the lessons of previous crises, most notably the 2005 bird flu outbreak, when Beijing’s stonewalling allowed a containable problem to get out of hand. Good precedents have been set.
Yet in foreign policy, economic and scientific terms, the fallout from the cyclone in Myanmar holds far more serious implications. Outsiders fume at a regime so fearful for its own survival that it would allow tens of thousands more of its citizens to perish of post-disaster disease, exposure and privations, rather than allow a willing world to come help. This has led to an important debate in foreign policy circles: Is the behavior of Myanmar’s generals so irresponsible that it justifies the use of force to save its citizens? And did the existence of this threat help the U.N. chief prize open Myanmar’s borders to aid workers?
The philosophical questions are easier to manage, of course. Put simply, does a decision to forgo international assistance, and by extension condemn thousands to die, amount to a crime against humanity? Judged by Western standards, preventing all possible aid is criminal. But the relevant standards here are Asian, remember, then international, and only after that, Western. The debate rages against a backdrop of a relatively new United Nations doctrine known as “the Responsibility to Protect.”
R2P, as U.N. wonks refer to it, grew out of the inaction of the international community during the 1994 Rwanda genocide and, in short, establishes a “right to humanitarian intervention” when a sovereign government has failed to act to protect its own people.
But protect them from what? This is the crux of the debate. Currently, R2P is understood by most to apply primarily in cases involving genocide or organized violence. Ramesh Thakur, a vice rector at the United Nations University in Tokyo and a member of the U.N. panel that drew up R2P, says a specific reference to natural disasters was removed because of the objections of some member states when the doctrine was promulgated in 2005.
To many, with thousands of lives at stake, this sounds mealy- mouthed. Both the United States and France have ships capable of mounting rescue operations stationed off the Myanmar coastline. But entreaties to the generals were, until this week, rebuffed, leading French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to demand the U.N. invoke R2P to authorize airdrops. Even now, the ability of experienced Western aid workers to operate inside the cyclone zone remains in question.
Beyond the question of approval from the government of the stricken country, the mounting of any kind of humanitarian operation invariably raises difficult questions for those involved. The American military’s capabilities, already overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, are vital to such operations.
The specter of past failures looms large. Think back to 1992. In December of that year, almost a year to the day that the Soviet Union disbanded itself and re leased the world from the policy straitjacket of the Cold War, 1,800 U.S. Marines landed on an East African beach in Somalia, where chaos reigned and several million faced starvation.
The “invasion” was unusual in a number of respects: Ordered by President George H. W. Bush a month after his defeat by Bill Clinton but before the new president took office; announced ahead of time, rather than kept secret. Yet the mission’s most significant oddity was its billing as a “humanitarian intervention,” a deployment of the battle-hardened U.S. military that had just won the first Gulf War for “operations other than combat,” as military jargon puts it. The president told the nation the military was being sent, along with international allies, “to do God’s work.”
As we now know, the operation turned out to include plenty of combat, and ever since the military has furiously resisted such missions. Even though the first phase of “Operation Restore Hope” did end the famine and, briefly, calm the clan and ethnic violence that afflicts Somalia, that is not the mission’s legacy. Instead, “Black Hawk Down” is how the mission is remembered, followed by an ignominious retreat. “Somalia” took its place with “Vietnam” and “Beirut” as one-word repellents against certain kinds of American military missions abroad.
That has not kept America’s military from making the difference between life and death for Asians in past disasters, most recently in the 2004 tsunami and the 2006 earthquake in Pakistan. But even during the tsunami, Indonesia initially told the United States to stay away, and India never permitted foreign aid workers to come in.
Intervening on principle, then, is not the current template: As Myanmar’s generals have proven, help requires an invitation. And even with one, as in Pakistan, the much ballyhooed “good feelings” toward America such missions are sup posed to engender rarely materialize. The thankless nature of the task should be faced at the outset.
Still, perhaps what the outside world may be able to hope for in Myanmar’s suffering is a re-evaluation of R2P to include nations overwhelmed by nature. Even today, convincing many countries once ruled by the “civilizing white man” to allow that kind of access may prove impossible.
ASEAN, the regional economic grouping that met last week to discuss the Myanmar crisis, said as much in its final statement. Myanmar had hoped to limit foreign aid workers to ASEAN nations, all of which have proven loath to criticize the junta’s human rights abuses. Meanwhile, longer-term challenges highlighted in the Irrawaddy Delta also need serious attention. If climate-change scientists are even half right, these kinds of events, especially in low-lying coastal nations, are a growing threat, not just an oddity. Even aggressive action on climate change may not be able to forestall rising seas in the next decades. The capability to manage such change exists, but, as usual, mostly in the places that least need it.
Separately, the world’s policies on food—the trade-distorting agricultural subsidies of the United States and Europe, and the shoddy practices of American food aid programs—need to be revisited quickly. Myanmar’s rice crop normally exceeds local demand and helps feed the destitute in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. That won’t happen this year, and the result could be a famine, and political instability, in a region that on any given day is moments away from catastrophe. It may be too late for many in Myanmar, but an intelligent reappraisal of these issues could save millions in the future.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.