You are here

The ‘Right’ of Humanitarian Intervention in Burma

Commentary, 28 May 2008
The refusal of the military junta in Rangoon to bow to international pressure and allow full access after the tragedy caused by cyclone Nargis illustrates the limits of the ‘right of intervention’ as theorised by the United Nations.

The refusal of the military junta in Rangoon to bow to international pressure and allow full access after the tragedy caused by cyclone Nargis illustrates the limits of the ‘right of intervention’ as theorised by the United Nations.

After the Tsunami that hit south-east Asia on 26 December 2004, Indonesia accepted large offers of international aid and threw open the doors of Aceh province, which was under martial law and had been closed to foreigners for many years. It was a humanitarian dream, breeding the idea that following this Asian tragedy, arguments for the ‘right of intervention’ would be reinforced and set on the path to global recognition.

Though the response was not perfect, and there was intrinsic risk involved, the massive assistance (more than US$12 billion was given globally) managed to achieve two important objectives: firstly, it led the government of Jakarta and the separatists of Aceh to negotiate a ceasefire, then to sign a peace accord which is still in place today; and secondly, it proved that the reservoir of generosity worldwide is immense.

Indonesia accepted offers of aid straightaway and without coercion. This success does not establish the ‘right of intervention’ however, but rather establishes that the international community, made up of governments, civil society and public opinion, all agree that in the twenty-first century, there is a ‘responsibility to protect’ endangered populations whose own national authorities are no longer capable of meeting their needs. It also allowed this right of intervention to win supplementary legitimacy on the ravaged coasts of South East Asia: how can the international community feel anything less than self-congratulatory at the sight of cargo planes and medical teams deploying in Aceh, Sri Lanka and, to a lesser extent, in Thailand, and not start to envisage a ‘borderless global solidarity’ that allows us to join together and bandage the wounds of the world?

Unfortunately, what we have seen of the humanitarian stalemate since 3 May in Myanmar (formerly Burma) suggests that the turnaround of the December 2004 tsunami was merely the result of a happy coincidence of political and humanitarian factors. Further, and even more tragically, the right of intervention is far from being agreed in the United Nations in New York or Geneva, or even by specialised groups such as the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, set up by Canada, which published a report of the same name in 2001.

The French proposition, tabled on 7 May, to hold an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to vote on a resolution condemning the attitude of the junta and demand access to the devastated provinces has become a dead letter. The Burmese trap has shut on the right of intervention due to three principle obstacles to its application: the nationalistic obsession of a state power which has lived in quasi-self-sufficiency since the 1960s; the demonisation of the West by a regime beaten by economic and financial sanctions and further banished from the international community since their bloody repression of pro-democracy protestors in September 2007; and finally, the refusal of neighbouring countries to back it up against the humanitarian injunctions of Brussels, Paris or Washington.

The parallel which comes immediately to mind with regard to the rare images of Burma that have made it through to the global media is that of Zimbabwe: what would happen if a cyclone hit Robert Mugabe’s country, and his last hope lay in the refusal of his African neighbours to let the West dictate the rules in the region?

The cruelest illustration of the situation is furnished by the response to the earthquake in Sichuan province, China. Peking has access to rescuers and medium-to-heavy logistics. The exceptional rapidity with which the authorities seemed to transmit information and mobilise assistance, hailed by the Chinese press – who are quite free on these subjects – shows that the lessons of previous catastrophes have been learned.

‘China is a country crossed by many seismic faults, which seems to have learnt how to face disasters’ emphasised the online correspondent for the Asia Sentinel. China is the largest supporter of the Burmese military junta, most notably as a seller of arms. And what has China demanded from those khaki-clothed ministers of Myanmar since cyclone Nargis hit? Nothing, or practically nothing. Proof that the international responsibility to ‘protect’ is worth nothing if states, particularly close neighbours, decide to go no further than merely sending trucks to the border posts.

The Burmese question is yet more formidable as it risks driving the largest donators of humanitarian funds, like the EU and the USA, to sound alarm bells without fully understanding the various nuances of the situation. Burma, whether one wants to believe it or not, is not North Korea. The presence in Rangoon of a strong expatriate community, as well as the presence there of many NGOs, such as the charity branch of the Order of Malta, Medicins Sans Frontieres, Save the Children or Action Against Hunger, is a guarantee of the capacity to monitor the actions of the soldiers in the country. Dispatching aid to Burma without arranging the large number of visas normally required for humanitarian teams is much less problematic there than in other countries.

It is acceptable that the European Commission led by Louis Michel clamours at Rangoon to open their doors to aid. It is essential that the aid gets to the neediest. However, it is also necessary to stop cradling delusions: the Burmese regime, pushed to the brink, paranoid and feudal, represents exactly the type of ‘obscure power struggle’ against which the right of intervention is, perhaps irredeemably, condemned to stumble.

Richard Werly
European Affairs correspondent of Swiss newspaper Le Temps, based in Geneva. He was formerly foreign correspondent based in Bangkok and Tokyo. On September 11 2008, he will be presenting at the RUSI workshop The Role of the Media in Emergencies.

This article originally appeared in Le Temps in French.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research