The United Nations is warning that the death toll from the deadly cyclone that hit Burma on May 3 may cross 60,000. Aid is desperately needed on a war footing. But the delivery of humanitarian aid does not justify going to war as demanded by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. To overcome Burmese official reluctance to accept international assistance, he is urging the UN Security Council to pass a resolution under the responsibility to protect norm to force through the delivery of aid.
The "humanitarian warriors" gave "humanitarian intervention" such a bad name that we had to rescue the deeply divisive idea and repackage it into the more unifying and politically marketable R2P concept and language which was then endorsed by world leaders at the UN summit in fall 2005. Kouchner's sympathy for the cyclone victims is commendable. Still, I can think of no better way to damage R2P beyond repair in Asia, and most of the rest of the developing world, than have humanitarian assistance delivered into Burma backed by Western soldiers fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia again.
Burma's military junta has been an unmitigated disaster for the country. My all too vivid impressions of Burma are of a gentle people suffering horribly under an unrelentingly oppressive regime that has stolen and squandered the nation's wealth and driven it to ruin and misery. Where in most cases there is some redeeming feature, I could neither see nor think of one insofar as this distasteful regime is concerned.
Hesitations about invoking R2P is not based therefore on any tender thoughts about the junta. R2P is one of the most important normative advances in global governance since World War II. We managed to find international consensus on it by creatively formulating it in non-confrontational language, restricting the circumstances in which outside military intervention is justified to large-scale killings (not death caused by natural disasters) and ethnic cleansing, and surrounding it with prevention before and reconstruction after military intervention.
Prospects of R2P providing the legal and normative foundation for when military intervention is needed to stop killings will diminish if it is abused and misused. As it is, we can detect signs of a rollback as some countries that previously endorsed it in 2005 now develop symptoms of buyer's remorse. Cuba and Sri Lanka are among the more prominent, but the sentiment is widely enough shared that the General Assembly forced the secretary-general to drop R2P from the title of his special adviser on the subject.
The R2P cause is not helped by over-enthusiastic supporters misapplying it to non-R2P type situations, which Burma after the cyclone undoubtedly is. Instead of securing timely action, this will complicate humanitarian relief efforts in this particular case and more generally afterwards.
The solution lies in invigorated efforts at four levels, based on solidarity with the victims and not the rights and privileges of interveners, to promote the prevention and reconstruction agendas of R2P. First, in direct exchanges with the Burmese authorities. At the end of the day, they are in effective control and any action requires both their consent and cooperation. Fighting them will worsen an already terrible humanitarian tragedy.
Second, and at the opposite end of the scale, in encouraging but non-threatening resolutions and statements at the UN from the secretary-general and presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council. There is no substitute for the UN's unique global legitimacy.
Third, by the major Asian powers: China, India and Japan. With major power status comes matching responsibility and they should step up to the plate.
And fourth, by the Southeast Asian neighbours of Burma, including ASEAN as the regional organisation. ASEAN has never fully recovered from the premature and ill-advised decision to admit Burma and its policy of constructive engagement and absolute non-interference in each other's internal affairs has been progressively discredited. Time for them to show some backbone and regain slipping legitimacy, credibility and relevance.
If the Asians come on board, political progress will be swift in unblocking obstacles and the delivery of humanitarian aid will be effective. And using the prevention and reconstruction language of R2P will promote the political legitimacy of the military intervention component when and where it becomes necessary. Without the Asians on board, forget it.
In sum, it's a three-way lose-lose option. The urgent task is to provide humanitarian relief and reconstruction; military intervention does not help and may imperil the delivery of such assistance. It will also set off another war when our goal should be to end those already being fought and manage the threat of new ones erupting, for example in Lebanon. And it will jeopardise the chances of creating international consensus and generating the political will to take military action when mass killings break out again in some corner of the world, as will assuredly happen.