The body count continues to rise in Burma (or "Myanmar" if you accept the name used by the brutal military junta that rules the nation). An estimated 100,000 people were killed by a cyclone that hit May 2. Another million are at risk.
Desperately needed humanitarian aid sits in airport hangars, just waiting to be delivered to storm-ravaged Burmese who have effectively been abandoned by their political "leaders," the country's ruling generals who care more about retaining power over the people than saving their lives.
Whether it is the regime's mistrust of the world or its total disregard for the wellbeing of its citizens, the junta has slowed international aid deliveries to a trickle that will undoubtedly cost an untold number of Burmese their lives.
In response, there is a growing call — specifically by officials in France, Britain and Germany — to invoke the United Nations' "responsibility to protect" (R2P), a doctrine adopted by the nations of the world in 2005 during a U.N. World Summit meeting.
The R2P doctrine permits the world community, acting through the U.N., to take collective action against nations that are "manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." The junta's systematic deprivation of its people from receiving lifesaving aid may, in its broadest sense, amount to a "crime against humanity," the argument goes. If so, then the international community would be permitted to intervene in Burma — by force if necessary — to deliver much needed humanitarian aid without the junta's consent.
These well-meaning European officials must know, however, that the R2P doctrine cannot save the Burmese people.
China holds sway over Burma and won't allow a disruption of the status quo in Burma. The R2P doctrine requires the cooperation of the U.N. Security Council, and China (with a veto as a permanent member of the Council) has already rejected the idea out of hand. The limits of R2P have thus been laid bare in the very first instance where its application has been attempted.
Using military force to deliver humanitarian relief to the Burmese people — which is in fact contemplated by the R2P doctrine — is fraught with danger. Landing Marines on Burmese beaches or making airdrops by helicopter aren't likely to be effective ways of distributing aid to hundreds of thousands of storm victims scattered across hundreds of miles of coastline.
More importantly, an intervention would likely spark a shooting war with the Burmese military, which would be unlikely to sit idly by while foreign forces "invade" their territory. Any resultant military escalation may spiral out of control if the Chinese support the junta, which already receives the bulk of its arms and ammunition from China. If the intervention collapses the junta, the instability and possible chaos likely to follow would belong to the benevolent interveners.
The tragedy in Burma was sadly predictable. Most of the international community (represented by the United Nations) has ignored the plight of the Burmese people for decades. The repression and violence inflicted by the junta upon its own citizenry — including Buddhist monks engaging in nonviolent protest — has been regularly dismissed by many nations (including China and Russia) as the "internal affairs" of Burma and therefore immune from scrutiny. The U.N. should not be surprised that Burma's isolated and paranoid regime would now spurn humanitarian relief from the international community.
The member states of the United Nations need only read the U.N. Charter to remind themselves that perhaps the only long-term solution to this catastrophe is the spread of freedom and the establishment of a representative government in Burma. Free countries struck by natural disasters rarely, if ever, reject free humanitarian aid offered by other nations.
Yet the world faces a different kind of regime in Burma, and the solution to the crisis remains elusive. Much of what will ultimately occur in Burma will depend on whether China or the nations of the regional economic organization known as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) are able to pressure the junta into opening its doors to a free flow of humanitarian supplies. Short of that, the world may be forced to watch as the Burmese people suffer and die due to not only to the intransigence of the junta but also the chronic neglect of the rest of the world.
The United Nations should support freedom in Burma with the same fervor that some officials now call for intervention. Perhaps in that way future catastrophes may be avoided.
Steven Groves is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
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