Anil Raj is a Myanmar (Burma) Country Specialist for Amnesty International (USA), but is writing in his own personal capacity. He is also pursuing his M.A. in International Human Rights at the University of Denvers Graduate School for International Studies, concentrating in post-war peacebuilding.
The response of the Burmese junta in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis is nothing less than repugnant, shameful, and inconsistent with the most fundamental duty of any sovereign state the responsibility to protect its own citizens.
There are several issues that need to be sorted out that have arose in the recent tragedy of Burma as it relates to R2P. First, the international community needs to determine what body has the appropriate mandate to determine the legal grounds of whether or not a state has engaged in genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, or war crimes. As Gareth Evans, and others have articulated, proving these crimes in a court of law are not only incredibly difficult, but are also time consuming. As evidenced in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, and in other similar situations, time is of the essence. Secondly, what alternatives does the international community have if the UN Security Council fails to reach a yes-vote on the use of force to effect change in Burma? As Timothy Garton Ash and others have suggested, engaging in action as NATO did during the Kosovo crisis may become a necessary possibility. However, if this route is taken, to whom is the intervening force responsible and accountable? Thirdly, how does the international community determine, and at what point, does it determine that all non-coercive measures have been exhausted, and that we must now resort to the use of force? This is a profound question, and will certainly involve ethical and moral dimensions in addition to any political and legal considerations. These are all important questions, and their answers will have a deep influence on the concept of intervention within the framework of R2P.
Unfortunately, most of the current debate on R2P and Burma has centered on the applicability, legality, and political feasibility of an R2P-mandated intervention. Those advocating for military intervention in Burma have done so with little (if any) consideration of the prospects for success in a post-war peacebuilding operation, and thus put forth a limited and shortsighted argument. The post-war peacebuilding component is vitally important not only to fulfill the obligations of R2P (after all, if the international community were to intervene militarily, we are obliged to rebuild the target state), but also ultimate success of any R2P-mandated military intervention will necessarily depend upon the success of a post-conflict peacebuilding operation, whereby the necessary elements for responsible and good governance can be erected, and peace consolidated.
Peacebuilding operations in societies that are characterized by the degeneration of the rule of law, where the most essential elements of human security are under constant threat, and an entire society that has been held hostage by its government, as is the case in Burma, is not only imperative for the future success of the state in question, but is at best, an onerous undertaking. It is a task that is essentially an exercise in state-building. Constitutions must be written, institutions must be founded, peacekeeping forces must hold the peace between warring belligerents, the security sector must be reformed, humanitarian aid and refugees must be tended to, negotiations must be facilitated between political parties, war criminals need to be tried in a court of law, and a democratic political culture that can be the foundation for democratic elections must be concocted. Moreover, it will require, at the least, hundreds of millions of dollars, the political will, and long-term commitment of the international community. The myriad number of peacebuilding operations worldwide has shown that while we have certainly improved in our peace and state-building abilities, we are far from mastery. Simply put, post-war Burma will be no easy task.
Thus, any debate surrounding R2P military intervention must beg the larger question of whether or not there is the capacity and the adequate prospect for success in not only intervention, but also in a post-war peacebuilding operation. If the Agenda for Peace, a set of strategic guidelines for United Nations efforts in preventing international conflict produced under the direction of Boutros Boutros Ghali, has had any bearing on the definitional objectives of the post-war peacebuilding enterprise, it is to ensure action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict.
If we are to uphold the definitional standard set forth in the Agenda for Peace, a post-war peacebuilding operation in Burma will be a significant challenge. With an active army of somewhere near 400,000 soldiers, 17 insurgent groups, ethnic tensions, and a ubiquitous military government apparatus that has institutionalized massive human rights violations as a means of governance, deconstructing these structures to provide the adequate space for the emergence of a new order will be a formidable task. Moreover, these insurgent groups are by no means united: schisms exist among and between them, and the government has used the breakaway factions as an extension of their own power, essentially as paramilitary forces. Needless to say, disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating former combatants into society will be very challenging. Subsequent government campaigns against these ethnic insurgencies, especially against the Karen National Liberation Army (the armed wing of the Karen National Union), have produced waves of refugees forcing many to flee to camps along Burmas borders. Rehabilitation and repatriation of these refugees will demand our utmost attention. Additionally, the overabundance of landmines that remain entrenched in Burmas border regions are a constant obstacle to peace, making landmine clearance a must in a post-war operation. It is quite evident through the systematic recruitment of child soldiers, forced relocations, attacks against civilians, raping and pillaging of villages, forced labor, and a plethora of other grave violations, that some sort of meaningful transitional justice component will be required to bring perpetrators to justice and facilitate reconciliation, while simultaneously attempting to hold the peace. Jump-starting the economy that has been looted by the military will also necessitate its profound restructuring. Decades of authoritarian rule have ravaged basic democratic governance institutions, the rule of law, and civil society. Establishing these vital state functions, in addition to creating the political landscape for prospects of a true, pluralistic democracy, will not only take time and significant resources, but will require the active participation of Burmas neighbors especially China since Burma falls well within its sphere of influence. The obstacles presented here are merely illustrative, and by no means exhaustive, of the challenges an intervening force would have to tackle.
If military intervention in Burma, or anywhere else where R2P may provide a remedy to massive human suffering is indeed carried out, contemplating solely the intervention phase, while ignoring our capacity to engage in post-war peacebuilding, is simply shortsighted. Moreover, it also fails to live up to our own stated promise of what R2P is all about responsible governance. If the international community is to bare the responsibility to protect the people of Burma, we oblige ourselves to protect the population until we have constructed a robust state whereby it possesses its own capacity to fulfill the duty of protection. If R2P is to find a permanent niche within the international system we cannot, and must not fail to deliver on what we have promised, from prevention through post-war peacebuilding. If we find ourselves lacking the needed capacity or prospects for success in either the intervention or the post-war phase we must immediately restrain from engaging in military action, and pursue other endeavors to fulfill our responsibility to protect.
Iraq is a poignant example of the cost of failure when an intervening state does not adequately assess its capacity, or its prospects for success in the post-conflict phase of its operations before intervention takes place. We cannot make the same mistake in Burma, or anywhere else. That cost is not something proponents of R2P can afford to shoulder if we are to breathe life into an already fragile doctrine, and shield vulnerable populations from irresponsible governments.
When the day comes to execute an R2P-mandated intervention, critics of R2P will be measuring our ability to deliver on our word at an unprecedented standard, as they rightfully should. If the international community is to become the keeper of vulnerable populations worldwide, we need to be absolutely certain that we are so intently committed to fulfilling all of our duties with such finesse and awe, that upon completion, we will be received with a standing ovation from friend and critic, alike.