To the extent that R2P is rooted in solidarity with victims of atrocity crimes, the sophistry of the distinction between a lakh killed by troops or through deliberate government neglect is morally repugnant.
Their paranoia and mistrust of the outside world are such that Burma's generals have been criminally tardy in permitting emergency humanitarian supplies and personnel from coming into the country. More than 100,000 have been killed already and up to a million more could die due to disease and starvation in the aftermath of the cyclone, depending on when, how much and what type of relief and help finally trickles through. The rising tide of anger, outrage and frustration led France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the founder of MSF (Doctors without Borders), to suggest invoking the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) doctrine in the United Nations Security Council as the legal means to force open Burma's borders to outside help. His call has generated an intense debate in policy, advocacy and media circles that is worth parsing into moral, conceptual, legal, political and practical components. There is also the question of which is more damaging to R2P in the longer term: invoking or ignoring it in the context of Cyclone Nargis.
R2P was a creative and innovative reformulation of the old "humanitarian intervention" debate by a Canadian-sponsored but independent international commission. We published our report at the end of 2001. Less than four years later - a uniquely rapid timeframe for such a landmark normative shift - it was adopted without a dissenting vote at the U.N. summit of world leaders in New York. In paragraphs 138 and 139 of the summit's outcome document, the countries of the world agreed that every state bears the responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Member-states further declared that they "are prepared to take collective action, in timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations."
Morally, there is no difference between large numbers of people being killed by soldiers firing into crowds or the government blocking help being delivered to the victims of natural disasters. To the extent that R2P is rooted in solidarity with victims of atrocity crimes, the sophistry of the distinction between a lakh killed by troops or through deliberate government neglect is morally repugnant.
Conceptually, the shift from the crime of mass killings by acts of commission like shooting people and acts of omission like preventing them from getting food and medical attention is a difference in degree rather in type.
Legally, the four categories where R2P apply are genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. In our original report (para. 4.20), we had explicitly included "overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes" causing significant loss of life as triggering R2P if the state was unable or unwilling to cope, or rebuffed assistance. This was dropped by 2005. But "crimes against humanity" were included, and there would be few lawyers who would dispute its provenance to cover the Burmese generals' actions in blocking outside aid when a lakh have been killed and 2.5 million affected.
Politically, however, we cannot ignore the significance of the exclusion of natural and environmental disasters between 2001 and 2005. Clearly, the normative consensus on this new global norm did not extend beyond the acts of commission of atrocity crimes by delinquent governments. If R2P promoters felt strongly enough that the dilution destroyed the core integrity of the norm, they should have held firm and not agreed to the adoption of the watered down version. To attempt to reintroduce it by the backdoor today would strengthen suspicion of western motivations and reinforce cynicism of western tactics. The opinion columnists of the major western media neither read non-western authors nor give them a voice in their own pages. Why then should the rest of the world bother reading or acting on their opinions? Unlike previous decades, the new unity of the global South, led by Brazil, China, India and South Africa, is based in a position of strength, not weakness. The chattering champions of illiberal (because it is based in "we know what's best for you" type of disrespect of dissenting opinions) interventionism should get used to it: they no longer set or control the agenda of policy discourse and action.
Practically, there is no humanitarian crisis so grave that it cannot be made worse by military intervention. Unappealing as they might be, the generals are in effective control of Burma. The only way to get aid quickly to where it is most needed is with the cooperation of the authorities. If they refuse, the notion of fighting one's way through to the victims is ludicrous. Western powers are already overstretched militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Washington continues to rattle its dwindling stock of Sabres at Iran. They have neither the capacity nor the will to start another war in the jungles of Southeast Asia. If foreign soldiers are involved, it does not take long for a war of liberation or humanitarian assistance to morph into a war of foreign occupation in the eyes of the local populace. Asians are not even interested in joining the conversation in this conceptual language. Dropping supplies from the air without the junta's permission would make a symbolic point but is impractical at so many levels that it has never been entertained seriously.
It's interesting that the further away countries are from Burma geographically and the less they know about it, the more of a macho stance they seem willing to embrace. For a change, the closest countries have shown the more mature response. Recognising this, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice approached her Chinese and Indian counterparts, among others, for help in persuading the Burmese authorities to loosen restrictions on foreign supplies and personnel. The other ports of call are Japan and, most importantly, Burma's Southeast Asian neighbours.
If the rhetoric and pressures are to be ratcheted up, the lead has to be taken by the Asians, and it must not even be phrased in anti-Asian terms. Asians forcefully reject any western right to set the moral compass for the West and everyone else's behaviour. Finger-pointing and playing the blame game is very unhelpful as well. It's easy for those who have no interests engaged there to accuse China and India of standing shoulder to shoulder with the butchers of Burma. Their protestations and censure would carry more moral weight if their conduct showed a consistent privileging of principles over national strategic or commercial interests in their dealings around the world. Asians today are better educated and better informed on world affairs. Gross double standards can no longer be hidden from them. In this context, any effort to invoke R2P formally in the Security Council would have the counter-productive effect of damaging R2P permanently across Asia, if not more widely in developing countries. They would be alienated and antagonised without any appreciable help reaching the Burmese people.
Yet because of the moral, conceptual and legal considerations, it would be equally short-sighted to rule out the relevance and application of R2P should the situation not improve and people start dying in large numbers from the after-effects of Cyclone Nargis. Nor can we rule out laying charges of crimes against humanity against the top leaders. For Asian governments always and in every instance to interpret calls for international action as proof of the evil West casting a predatory eye on the virtuous rest quickly becomes an off-putting slogan, not an argument. It will be rejected by their own people as well. Self-generating initiatives by civil society in China in response to the deadly earthquake in Sichuan showed a latent but powerful sense of nationalism that can be quickly mobilised. There is an equally powerful sense of humanism that motivates most peoples' sense of justice when atrocities and disasters lead to avoidable deaths in large numbers.
And finally, we also have to answer a pertinent question: if not in these circumstances, then when is R2P relevant? Is it to remain merely a slogan, an alibi for doing nothing collectively because we want to turn our gaze away from the killings individually? Must the "integrity" of R2P always be protected so that it can be used for the next but never the present crisis? If we are going to wait for the perfect combination of circumstances, when it is required precisely because we live in an imperfect and deeply flawed world, then we risk being guilty of perpetrating a cruel hoax on victims of atrocities and disasters. These are tough, uncomfortable but legitimate questions for the authors and advocates of R2P. A good initial response might be to embed immediate post-cyclone reconstruction in the language of the responsibility to rebuild, followed by assistance in constructing better civil defence preparations to minimise future casualties under the responsibility to prevent component of R2P.