There are natural disasters, and there are man-made disasters. Cyclones and
earthquakes are, of course, natural. But the devastation wrought by a
government's refusal to allow aid workers entry into crisis areas; by its
confiscation of aid; by its diversion of resources so it can fix a referendum
"legitimizing" its antidemocratic authority--that sort of disaster is
man-made. And it requires a man-made response.
Cyclone Nargis swept Burma's
Irrawaddy Delta weeks ago. It killed (at least) 80,000 people and put up to 2.5
million more at risk of disease and starvation. But the military junta that has
since 1962 is only beginning to let foreign aid into the country. Rather than
welcome and cooperate with international donors, the generals have dithered,
postured, and placed tight restrictions on the manner in which aid is delivered
to the destitute. Donors can hand over relief to the junta's agents. But they
have neither control over nor knowledge of what those agents do with it
afterward. The donors are blind. The generals are empowered. The Burmese people
suffer and die.
This is intolerable. Every government, even the most despotic, has a
responsibility to protect its people from this sort of situation. To do
otherwise is criminal negligence. That is the unanimous consensus of the United
is a member--which in 2005 adopted the following resolution: "Each
individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from
genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. ... The
international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility
to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means ... to
help protect populations. ... [W]e are prepared to take collective action ...
should peaceful means be inadequate."
Strong words. Do they mean anything? French foreign minister Bernard
Kouchner suggested that the "responsibility to protect" clause
applies to Burma.
The response was first silence, then criticism. His critics make two arguments.
One is that the language of the "responsibility to protect" clause
does not fit the current situation. The other is that the U.N. is powerless to
But these arguments are nothing more than rationales for ambivalence. A
"crime against humanity" is usually the result of a deliberate
action. But it can also be the result of inaction. And it is the junta's
unwillingness to aid its oppressed population that rises to the level of such a
Is the U.N. powerless? Only if it wants to be. The democracies on the
Security Council won't introduce a resolution calling on the junta to accept
aid because they expect China
and possibly Russia
to veto it. Why should they let themselves be bullied by the autocracies? Let
the Security Council vote on such a resolution. Let China
veto it. Let the world see who is willing to assist the afflicted Burmese and
who is willing to stand in the way.
Simply holding a vote may pressure the junta to open Burma. If not,
however, the aid should still flow. There are too many lives at stake to do
Conservative leader David Cameron suggested airdropping aid directly to those
in need. The military will confiscate some of the dropped aid. But not all of
it. And the flags on the relief kits will show the Burmese people that they are
Robert D. Kaplan--no bleeding heart--wrote in the New
York Times that "an enormous amount of assistance can be provided
while maintaining a small footprint on shore." A distribution network
independent from the government already exists in the saffron-robed monks who
rose up against the junta last year. Meanwhile, we can establish safe havens
along the coast and river deltas where aid can flow and where those desiring
protection from the regime can gather. The allies established safe havens in
Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
They worked then. They'd work now.
All of this risks military confrontation with the junta. That is because it,
not the cyclone, is Burma's
true disaster. Hence the third part of an appropriate international response:
rollback of the regime causing this tragedy. This does not mean invasion using
conventional forces. The policy can be pursued by providing assistance to the
Burmese opposition, by stepping up democracy promotion, by preparing indictments
of regime leaders for crimes against humanity, by covert (and, yes, overt)
action to disrupt the junta's command and control.
Risky? Sure. But assertiveness in the cause of natural right often decreases
the chance of violence. Necessary? Absolutely. Conscience and justice demand
it. So hold the vote. Drop the aid. And help the Burmese people overthrow the
tyrants who allowed this tragedy to unfold.