WATERLOO, Canada — CNN has quoted Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Burma, as saying that more than 100,000 may have died in the country’s delta region alone from the deadly cyclone that hit May 3.
Although humanitarian aid is desperately needed, its expeditious delivery does not justify going to war as demanded by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
To overcome Burmese official reluctance to accept international assistance, he has urged the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution under the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) norm to force through the delivery of aid.
“Humanitarian warriors” had given “humanitarian intervention” such a bad name that we had to rescue the deeply divisive idea and repackage it into the more unifying and politically marketable R2P concept and language that was then endorsed by world leaders at the U.N. summit in the fall 2005.
Kouchner’s motivation and impatience are understandable: After all, he was one of the founders of Doctors without Borders, a great Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian organization. And his sympathy for the cyclone victims is commendable. Still, I can think of no better way to damage R2P beyond repair in Asia and most of he rest of the developing world than have humanitarian assistance delivered into Burma backed by Western soldiers fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia again.
If France has soldiers ready to spare for serious combat, perhaps they could assist or relieve beleaguered Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan.
John Holmes, a former ambassador to France, has rightly rejected Kouchner’s call as unnecessarily confrontational. He added that cooperation from Burmese authorities was “reasonable and heading in the right direction.”
Burma’s military junta has been an unmitigated disaster for the country. My all too vivid impressions of Burma are of a gentle people suffering horribly under an unrelentingly oppressive regime that has stolen and squandered the nation’s wealth and driven it to ruin and misery. Where in most cases there is some redeeming feature, I could neither see nor think of one insofar as this distasteful regime is concerned.
Hesitations about invoking R2P is not based therefore in any tender thoughts about the junta. R2P is one of the most important advances in global governance since World War II. We managed to find international consensus on it by creatively formulating it in nonconfrontational language, restricting the circumstances in which outside military intervention is justified to large-scale killings (not death caused by natural disasters) and ethnic cleansing, and surrounding it with prevention before and reconstruction after military intervention.
The prospects of R2P providing the legal and normative foundation for military intervention when it is really needed to stop killings will diminish if it is abused and misused.
As it is, we can detect signs of a rollback as some countries that previously endorsed it in 2005 now develop symptoms of buyer’s remorse. Cuba and Sri Lanka are among the more prominent, but the sentiment is widely shared to the extent that the Genera Assembly forced the secretary general to drop R2P from the title of his special adviser on the subject.
The R2P cause is not helped by over-enthusiastic supporters misapplying it to non-R2P type situations, which Burma since the cyclone undoubtedly is. Instead of securing timely action, this will complicate humanitarian relief efforts in this particular case and more generally afterward.
The solution lies in invigorated efforts at four levels, based on solidarity with the victims — not on the rights and privileges of would-be interveners: In direct exchanges with the Burmese authorities. At the end of the day, they are in effective control and any action requires both their consent and cooperation. Fighting them will worsen an already terrible humanitarian tragedy.
At the opposite end of the scale, in encouraging but nonthreatening resolutions and statements at the United Nations from the secretary general and presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council. There is no substitute for the U.N.’s unique global legitimacy.
By the major Asian powers: China, India and Japan. With major power status comes matching responsibility and they should step up to the plate.
By the Southeast Asian neighbors of Burma, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the regional organization.
ASEAN has never fully recovered from the premature and ill-advised decision to admit Burma, and its policy of constructive engagement and absolute noninterference in each other’s internal affairs has been progressively discredited. It’s time for them to show some backbone and regain slipping legitimacy, credibility and relevance.
If the Asians come on board, political progress will be swift in unblocking obstacles and the delivery of humanitarian aid will be effective. And using the prevention and reconstruction language of R2P will promote the political legitimacy of the military intervention component when and where it becomes necessary.
Without the Asians on board, forget it.
Ramesh Thakur, professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, is one of the original R2P commissioners and a member of the international advisory board of the Global Center for R2P in New York. He is the author of “The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect.”