There are natural disasters, and there are man-made disasters. Cyclones and earthquakes are, of course, natural. But the devastation wrought by a government's refusal to allow aid workers entry into crisis areas; by its confiscation of aid; by its diversion of resources so it can fix a referendum "legitimizing" its antidemocratic authority--that sort of disaster is man-made. And it requires a man-made response.
Cyclone Nargis swept Burma's Irrawaddy Delta weeks ago. It killed (at least) 80,000 people and put up to 2.5 million more at risk of disease and starvation. But the military junta that has ruled Burma since 1962 is only beginning to let foreign aid into the country. Rather than welcome and cooperate with international donors, the generals have dithered, postured, and placed tight restrictions on the manner in which aid is delivered to the destitute. Donors can hand over relief to the junta's agents. But they have neither control over nor knowledge of what those agents do with it afterward. The donors are blind. The generals are empowered. The Burmese people suffer and die.
This is intolerable. Every government, even the most despotic, has a responsibility to protect its people from this sort of situation. To do otherwise is criminal negligence. That is the unanimous consensus of the United Nations--Burma is a member--which in 2005 adopted the following resolution: "Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. . . . The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means . . . to help protect populations. . . . [W]e are prepared to take collective action . . . should peaceful means be inadequate."
Strong words. Do they mean anything? French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner suggested that the "responsibility to protect" clause applies to Burma. The response was first silence, then criticism. His critics make two arguments. One is that the language of the "responsibility to protect" clause does not fit the current situation. The other is that the U.N. is powerless to intervene.
But these arguments are nothing more than rationales for ambivalence. A "crime against humanity" is usually the result of a deliberate action. But it can also be the result of inaction. And it is the junta's unwillingness to aid its oppressed population that rises to the level of such a crime.
Is the U.N. powerless? Only if it wants to be. The democracies on the Security Council won't introduce a resolution calling on the junta to accept aid because they expect China and possibly Russia to veto it. Why should they let themselves be bullied by the autocracies? Let the Security Council vote on such a resolution. Let China or Russia veto it. Let the world see who is willing to assist the afflicted Burmese and who is willing to stand in the way.
Simply holding a vote may pressure the junta to open Burma. If not, however, the aid should still flow. There are too many lives at stake to do nothing. Britain's Conservative leader David Cameron suggested airdropping aid directly to those in need. The military will confiscate some of the dropped aid. But not all of it. And the flags on the relief kits will show the Burmese people that they are not alone.
Robert D. Kaplan--no bleeding heart--wrote in the New York Times that "an enormous amount of assistance can be provided while maintaining a small footprint on shore." A distribution network independent from the government already exists in the saffron-robed monks who rose up against the junta last year. Meanwhile, we can establish safe havens along the coast and river deltas where aid can flow and where those desiring protection from the regime can gather. The allies established safe havens in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. They worked then. They'd work now.
All of this risks military confrontation with the junta. That is because it, not the cyclone, is Burma's true disaster. Hence the third part of an appropriate international response: rollback of the regime causing this tragedy. This does not mean invasion using conventional forces. The policy can be pursued by providing assistance to the Burmese opposition, by stepping up democracy promotion, by preparing indictments of regime leaders for crimes against humanity, by covert (and, yes, overt) action to disrupt the junta's command and control.
Risky? Sure. But assertiveness in the cause of natural right often decreases the chance of violence. Necessary? Absolutely. Conscience and justice demand it. So hold the vote. Drop the aid. And help the Burmese people overthrow the tyrants who allowed this tragedy to unfold.
--Matthew Continetti, for the Editors