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International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect
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Los Angeles Times
Maggie Farley
14 May 2008

Myanmar's cyclone and China's earthquake highlight a question that the U.N. often struggles with: what to do when a country's people need outside help but the government rejects it.

() France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, last week called Myanmar's tepid response to outside assistance a crime against humanity and demanded that food be airdropped, even without permission, to fulfill "the responsibility to protect." That proposal was rejected by the U.N. as both impolitic and impractical.

(...) "It is certainly not a classic case," said Edward Luck, the U.N.'s special advisor on the responsibility to protect. "While lawyers can argue whether neglecting hundreds of thousands of people is a crime against humanity, the member states by and large are very uncomfortable applying it to this situation."

The U.N. already faces examples of governments' neglect of their people and obstruction of outside help in places with food shortages or ongoing violence such as Darfur, Zimbabwe and North Korea. Humanitarian workers operate under strict limitations on how long they can stay, where they can travel and what they can publicly say.

"What you've got to do is keep pressuring the regime, and have neighboring countries do it too," Luck said. "In Myanmar, they've been opening up inch by inch, though we wish it would be mile by mile."

"If Myanmar's authorities and foreign agencies start cooperating," said a former U.N. official familiar with Myanmar who did not want to be named, "it could be a turning point for both sides: for the government in terms of accepting and learning to work with the international aid community, and for some Western governments in accepting that sometimes you have to work with this regime if you really want to help." (...)

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