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Tuesday, May 27, 2008


May 23, 2008
'Soft' intervention better than none
By Timothy Garton Ash, For The Straits Times

THIS weekend, unless Myanmar's generals find in their shrivelled souls some hidden shred of human decency, there will take place in the Irrawaddy delta one of the most grotesque events in the political history of the modern world.
While dead children still lie face down in muddy waters after the May 3 cyclone, while survivors fall ill with life- threatening diarrhoea, while international aid workers are prevented by the junta from bringing in supplies that could save them, Myanmar's citizens will be herded into makeshift polling stations to approve by plebiscite a Constitution designed to prevent the results of a democratic election held 18 years ago from ever being respected.

The results of the referendum will be falsified, of course, as they already have been in other parts of the country. And down in the delta, you can be sure the dead will vote early and vote often.

This from a regime which, over decades, has reduced what was historically one of the more prosperous places in South-east Asia to one of the poorest and most oppressed. If ever a country needed regime change, it is Myanmar.

So what should we do about it? French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has led the debate on this, invoking the notion of an international 'responsibility to protect' (R2P) which was cautiously blessed by the United Nations in 2005.

Although it was mainly intended for other purposes (for example, stopping genocide and ethnic cleansing), R2P is a useful guide in thinking about what we can do for Myanmar, starting with the fact that the R stands for responsibility (to protect), not right (to invade).

The responsibility to protect must be exercised responsibly - that is, with a careful, informed calculation of the likely consequences. I conclude that we should use every means except that of military-backed unilateral (or Western 'coalition of the willing') action, which has few Reasonable Prospects, is arguably not the Last Resort, and would not have Right Authority.

The Canadian-backed international commission that produced the report on R2P in 2001 deliberately made this shift in emphasis, which is relatively new. When is that responsibility triggered, and what is the threshold that justifies intervention, up to and including the use of force?

The commission updated some time-honoured thinking about 'just war' to identify six criteria: Just Cause, Right Intention, Last Resort, Proportional Means, Reasonable Prospects and Right Authority. Among the conditions that would give Just Cause for intervention, it listed 'overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes, where the state concerned is either unwilling or unable to cope, or call for assistance, and significant loss of life is occurring or threatened'. Well, here we are then.

I have no doubt we have a responsibility to act in this case, and we have Just Cause to do so without the explicit consent of Myanmar's illegitimate rulers. Unlike over Iraq, I would credit even US President George W. Bush with Right Intention here.

I suppose you could argue that the interests of the West might be served by gaining influence over a buffer state between India and China (and, yes, Myanmar does have oil). But I don't think that's why a US ship is on standby off the Irrawaddy delta with helicopters and supplies.

Proportional Means? Yes, air drops and a 'sea bridge' for aid would seem to me proportionate to save the lives of certainly tens of thousands, and potentially hundreds of thousands, of innocent men, women and children.

With the other three principles, things get more complicated. Right Authority should mean, ideally, a UN Security Council resolution. Mr Kouchner has discovered we won't get this. That leaves something like the Kosovo intervention, pithily described as 'illegal but legitimate'.

But whereas action over Kosovo was supported by a majority of its neighbours and of the world's democracies, this one would not be - starting with the world's largest democracy, neighbouring India.

Last Resort means you've tried all other ways first. That's tough in this case, because while you are trying, people are dying. But can we really say we've exhausted all other possibilities?

The fact is, thanks to visits such as those of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and British Foreign Office Minister Mark Malloch Brown, and thanks to some (not enough) pressure from China and Asian neighbours, the regime has now agreed to let in more aid under the flag of Asean. There are also charities working on the ground in the delta, using local staff.

If we keep our elbow to the door, are ingenious and persistent, as well as work closely with China, India and Thailand, we may be able to get more of the Western, rich countries' aid in under, so to speak, an Asian umbrella.

Perhaps a 'sea bridge' could even be built using Indian ships, or simply boats flying an Asian flag of convenience, to transport the supplies from the waiting British, American and French ships. Too little, too late - but what's the alternative?

That question brings us to one of the most important criteria: Reasonable Prospects (of success, that is). Consider the likely consequences of military-protected unilateral air drops and 'sea bridges' from those American, British and French ships.

I am told these would have little chance of getting what is really needed - now mainly sanitation, clean water, medical supplies and care, as well as food and shelter - to those who mainly need them, often in remote areas. For that, you need light local transport and trained medical and aid workers on the spot.

Some observers scoff: 'You don't seriously think the regime's pitiful forces would try to stop' forced humanitarianism. Well, I do - because they already have. As of last weekend, they had admitted just three - three! - foreign aid workers to the delta.

Non-governmental organisations on the ground express the fear that forced humanitarianism would lead to an immediate suspension of other aid supplies. The generals' indifference to the fate of their own people is matched only by their selfishness, cynicism and loss of contact with reality. Could they be so stupid? They could be so stupid.

The responsibility to protect must be exercised responsibly - with a careful, informed calculation of the likely consequences. I conclude that we should use every means except that of military- backed unilateral (or Western 'coalition of the willing') action, which has few Reasonable Prospects, is arguably not the Last Resort, and would not have Right Authority.

This does not mean we do nothing. We have a responsibility to act by every other means available, and there are many forms of 'intervention' short of the military. For us ordinary citizens, that includes ensuring the charities which do operate there have sufficient funds.

As for those criminal generals - who, believe it or not, consider themselves to be good Buddhists - I will say only this: They have already produced so much bad karma that, if there is any justice in the great cycle of things, they will all come back as rats.

The writer is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University

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