- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008


On May 7, 2008, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner proposed that the United Nations implement a rarefied doctrine - the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) - to compel the delivery of aid to Myanmar despite the junta’s resistance. Mr. Kouchner’s suggestion is attractive from the perspective of alleviating human suffering. However, it is flawed as a matter of international policy. Instead of invoking the ethereal and controversial R2P, a comprehensive disaster relief treaty would provide a better method of ensuring that humanitarian aid is delivered when it is needed most.

R2P is an emerging concept in international law that was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005. R2P purports to impose on the international community a responsibility to act when a government is unwilling or unable to protect its own people. Under the doctrine, state sovereignty is premised on a government’s duty to protect its own citizens. When a government fails to do that, its sovereignty yields, and the international community can act using peaceful measures and - as a last resort - military force.

Critics immediately dismissed Mr. Kouchner’s recommendation as a misapplication of the concept. They argue that it only applies to situations involving genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity; in their view, it does not apply to natural disasters. This is a valid argument: R2P will likely prove ineffectual in dealing with cyclone relief in Myanmar. It is far more likely that a solution in Myanmar will involve intense ad hoc negotiation and compromise on all sides.

Extending R2P to natural disasters may be a practical non-starter. Yet the situation in Myanmar highlights the need to create a reliable prospective mechanism to provide humanitarian aid in the wake of natural disasters. Providing humanitarian aid despite the objections of an intransigent government is not a novel concept. We have faced this before and will doubtless face it again. In spite of this, there have been no major international diplomatic efforts to provide guidance or understanding about how the international community should respond.

There is no simple, universal solution to handling these complex situations. However, there are promising alternatives. A comprehensive international disaster relief framework set forth by treaty is a logical response - when the problem is rooted in the lack of clearly formulated and pre-approved guidelines. If such a framework were in place before a disaster occurs, there would surely be less quarreling over the exact parameters of providing aid when natural disasters strike.

Such an initiative is not unprecedented. In January 2005, 30 countries ratified the Tampere Convention, an international agreement creating procedures for the effective deployment of telecommunications resources for disaster relief. The Tampere Convention waives certain regulatory barriers that inhibit the use of telecommunications equipment, exempts relief agencies from taxation and duties, and grants various privileges and immunities to NGO staff and relief workers. The Tampere Convention represents an effort to ensure effective disaster response as a means of fulfilling nations’ vital responsibility to protect victims of natural disaster.

In the case of Myanmar, the junta is resisting humanitarian assistance out of fear that an international presence - even one engaged in relief work - will weaken its political grip over the country. This resistance stems from the junta’s distrust that humanitarian aid can be distributed in a manner devoid of political influence or subversion. A comprehensive disaster relief treaty similar to the Tampere Convention would provide exactly that. Countries like Myanmar that resist humanitarian aid when it is needed will surely resist such a treaty. But we should address such countries’ concerns formally in a neutral forum at a neutral time rather than engage in emotionally and politically charged negotiations against the backdrop of a crisis that is spinning out of control.

Every day that passes without action costs thousands of lives - both in Myanmar and in untold places that will bear the brunt of future natural disasters. There is no better time than now for the international community to rise to the challenge and consider how better to deal with these catastrophic events. R2P may not provide the right solution: Yet extending some of its tenets to address disaster relief would be a positive step towards alleviating unnecessary human suffering through global action.

Tyra R. Saechao is an attorney at a New York City firm, and a graduate of Brooklyn Law School, where she studied and published in the area of natural disasters and international law. Sujeet B. Rao, currently a student at Yale Law School, has studied and worked in the areas of international law and development.



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