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Edmonton Journal
Andy Knight and Vasselin Popovski
4 June 2008

The Burmese government's dithering on accepting global aid for cyclone victims has created an ethical dilemma for some nations. Do they follow international agreements and let the regime in Rangoon decide what is best for its people, or intervene directly to save lives? ()

Kouchner's argument was simple: The refusal of Burma's military junta to accept external humanitarian relief put even more Burmese at risk of death and disease. This, combined with the difficulty of getting access to some victims due to the inaccessibility of certain stricken areas and the appalling conditions of Burma's infrastructure and health-care facilities, meant that within a few months the death toll in that country could rival that of the Rwandan genocide. In Kouchner's opinion, the international community had a responsibility to impose -- coercively if necessary -- humanitarian relief in Burma because the government of that country was acting negligently at best, or even criminally at worst.

Lloyd Axworthy, former Canadian foreign minister and now president of the University of Winnipeg, lent his support to Kouchner's call to invoke R2P. In Axworthy's opinion, "there is no moral difference between an innocent person being killed by machete or AK-47, or starving to death, or dying in a cholera pandemic that could be avoided by proper international responses." Thus, the global community should exercise its responsibility to protect the Burmese people who are at risk, not only from natural disaster, but also from their own government's neglect.

Axworthy's argument was bolstered by University of British Columbia professor Michael Byers, who recommended that Canada air drop, covertly, humanitarian aid packages into the Irrawaddy Delta, with or without the permission of the government in Rangoon. ()

But as Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister and current head of the International Crisis Group, points out, invoking R2P in the Burmese case could dramatically undercut the international consensus on the use of R2P, which was arrived at during the 2005 world leaders' summit at the UN.

It was not easy to get countries from north and south to agree on the R2P doctrine. That doctrine can be found in Paragraphs 138 and 139 of the Outcome Document of the 2005 World Summit. In essence it says that nations, first and foremost, have "the responsibility to protect" their populations "from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." The international community's obligation is to "help states exercise this responsibility."

According to the Outcome Document, R2P could be invoked by the international community, via the UN Security Council, "on a case-by-case basis" and "in co-operation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate," if national states are "manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." Note that no mention is made of utilizing R2P as a response to natural disasters.

Thus, Evans is technically right that "R2P is about protecting vulnerable populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity" and "it is only in that context that the question should even arise of coercively intervening in a country against the express will of its government." Even in such cases, the R2P norm allows for the use of military force only with the UN Security Council's authorization, and force is to be used only as a last resort.

It is certainly important to protect the integrity of the R2P norm, since there was international consensus over its definition and usage.

But, an argument can and has been made by scholars like Peter McKenna, of the University of Prince Edward Island, that "the willful obstruction of aid delivery to some one million Burmese by the military government" rises to the level of "a despicable crime against humanity."

Even Ramesh Thakur, who like Evans was one of the norm entrepreneurs responsible for developing the R2P concept, argues that "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."

Although Thakur seems ambivalent about invoking R2P in the Burma case, he acknowledges that when Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) drafted its report in 2001, there was an explicit inclusion of "overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes" as one of the triggers of R2P, should a state prove unwilling or unable to cope with the disaster or rebuff aid.

At the 2005 World Summit, this clause was dropped. The result was what Alex Bellamy of the University of Queensland has called, in his forthcoming book on the responsibility to protect, the adoption of R2P Lite. Nevertheless, crimes against humanity remained a trigger for the invocation of R2P, according to the 2005 Outcome Document. And, the (in)action of the government in Rangoon could be categorized as a crime against humanity.

If that is the case, should there not be at least a discussion in the UN Security Council about invoking the R2P norm in the Burmese case? Or is the international community more concerned with preservation of the R2P norm rather than protecting people first?

W. Andy Knight is professor of international relations at the University of Alberta; he does research for the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York. Vasselin Popovski is a former Bulgarian diplomat and current senior academic program officer at the United Nations University in Tokyo.


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