Since last week's deadly cyclone in Burma, the nation's ruling military junta has been reluctant to allow aid to enter the country. Since then, trickles of food, water and medicines have been allowed to enter the country, but international aid workers have not. Citing a government that failed to even warn its citizens of the impending disaster, international observers believe that the regime in Burma has neither the will nor the capacity to distribute aid fairly, that corrupt officials are profiting from aid packages, and that the situation created by these conditions threatens to outpace the humanitarian devastation of the 2004 tsunami.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner--the founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders)--suggested that the international community and the UN are obligated to intervene in Burma, regardless of the wishes of the military junta, in accordance with the "Responsibility to Protect", or R2P, as outlined by the UN at the General Assembly in 2005. The concept asserts that the international community is obligated to intervene in cases where states fail to protect their populations from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."
There are widely varying opinions (pdf) on the legality of the Responibility to Protect. Some argue that it violates the basic concept of sovereignty, while others like the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, believe as Kouchner does, that the UN is abdicating its responsibility in Burma. Garreth Evans, of the International Crisis Group, offers a more nuanced interpretation in an editorial for The Guardian:
If it comes to be thought that R2P, and in particular the sharp military end of the doctrine, is capable of being invoked in anything other than a context of mass atrocity crimes, then such consensus as there is in favour of the new norm will simply evaporate in the global south. And that means that when the next case of genocide or ethnic cleansing comes along we will be back to the same old depressing arguments about the primacy of sovereignty that led us into the horrors of inaction in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s."
He admits that if the inaction and neglect of the Burmese government is widely interpreted as a crime against humanity, then there might be room for the principle's application.
But there is no disagreement that the people of Burma can't wait for these issues to be bandied about at the Security Council or across editorial pages. Frustrated nations have a choice to make: either they must defy the wishes of the Burmese junta and send aid workers or airlifts to the Irrawaddy Delta, or they must submit to the regime and send whatever they have in the hopes that it will reach those in need. Regardless, it is clear that moralizing and posturing on the issue is not going to influence many, either in Rangoon or at the UN.
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