Thursday, May 08, 2008

Burma: natural disaster to man-made crisis

[How to help relief agencies in Burma.]

In his recent address to the United Nations, Pope Benedict XVI said,
Every State has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made. If States are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations Charter and in other international instruments. The action of the international community and its institutions, provided that it respects the principles undergirding the international order, should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty. On the contrary, it is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage. (Emphasis added)
I was especially reminded of these lines as the situation in Burma continues to unfold, and a natural disaster is fast turning into a a man-made crisis of unimaginable misery and horror. The Holy Father, in that talk, was calling the United Nations back to the high ideals that are its foundations. That the day-to-day reality of the UN gives more ground for skepticism is clear from this article in the Weekly Standard: Abetting Burma.
The Burmese government reluctantly signaled its acceptance of international aid earlier this week. But the regime's relative indifference to the fate of thousands of its own citizens during this crisis seems to have stirred little consternation among U.N. officials. Sir John Holmes, the U.N.'s Humanitarian Affairs chief, called the international relief effort "slower than ideal"--but claimed that cooperation from the junta was "going in the right direction." French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was less diplomatic, suggesting that the U.N. Security Council authorize the use of force to get assistance to people in need.

The French proposal, an impossible gambit for
the United Nations, nevertheless suggests the depth of frustration with the institution: the monstrous contradiction between U.N. ideals and its willingness to implement them. The U.N. General Assembly has approved a "responsibility to protect" doctrine, for example, which authorizes states to intervene to protect civilian populations from gross human-rights abuses. Burma--a tiny, corrupt, desperately poor state--is a standing rebuke to the U.N. doctrine and to the notion that the United Nations alone possesses the moral legitimacy to enforce it.
Ambiguity, and downright complicity has characterized the international community's response to the brutal and reprehensible junta. Part of the complicity stems from the greed of hungry neighbors, eager to have access to Burma's resources. As this piece at the Rule of Lords (a blog dealing with human rights in Thailand and Burma) asks: Where are Burma's neighbors? (h/t Myanmar Relief)
The absence of any significant response from China, India, South Korea, Japan and Thailand is shocking. China and India have been vying over the country for both strategic and economic reasons for years; Japan and South Korea have longstanding business and personal links, and the distance from thriving Bangkok to the worst-affected areas is less than that from most other parts of Burma. Yet none have demonstrated any meaningful will to assist in the recovery, and have so far limited themselves to token gestures.

The trivial amount of support extended to a country that is half paralyzed and facing the prospect of both famine and epidemic disease is in marked contrast to that which followed the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the effects of which were comparable in scale to Cyclone Nargis but spread over a wider area.
At a time that ASEAN is supposedly transforming itself from a security-cum-economic bloc into something more substantive, at a time that China is struggling to show itself off to the world in advance of an already embattled Olympics, at a time that India is insisting upon a seat at the U.N. Security Council as a new world power, if these countries together keep dragging their feet and fail to act energetically to help millions of people within a stone's throw of their borders, then shame on them, and woe to everything that they falsely claim to represent.

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