Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2040

Will it be A Paper Tiger?

Prof. Kanbawza Win

The UN's special envoy Ibrahim Gambari's fourth visit to Burma had come to a dead end and left the country empty-handed. Even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has refused to see him knowing full well that nothing would come out of it as his actions speaks more louder than words. From the very beginning why was he chosen? A man bent on keeping his job rather than laying down the platforms for trouble shooting was proven, when he did not have the guts to tell the Generals face to face but instead chose to make a public statement appealing military leaders to put aside their differences and work together on national reconciliation. This infuriated the regime.

Choosing the wrong man at the wrong time had a snowball effect and now his failure to accomplish anything at all, raises serious doubts about the future role of the UN and its mediation efforts in Burma. In other words has the UN become a paper tiger that cannot roar or bite?

If Gambari, is trying to prepare the ground for the forthcoming visit of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon before Christmas "to deal solely on country's political situation," as declared, then he has done his job very badly and is bound to fail, as there is not a single teeth in the tiger. The Secretary General’s first trip in May was met by the supremo Than Shwe, only because he concentrated on relief and reconstruction in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, where the regime demanded 11 billion dollars most of which will line their pockets and let the people die. Mr Ban Ki-Moon will have to make it very clear the hypothesis of either or if the UN were to have some semblance in Burma or elsewhere in the world.

The Backdrop

The Afro-Asian countries, which have thrown the yoke of colonialism, construe humanitarian intervention, as the most sinister plot of imperialist power and a grave threat to their sovereignty. Can nations, acting through the UN Security Council, fulfil a “responsibility to protect” innocent civilians? Or is such a doctrine of a Trojan horse for great power abuse and more mendacity? Are just some of the common questions often asks. No doubt when nations send their military forces it is not only “humanitarian” purposes but often than not pursue their narrow national interest – grabbing territory, gaining geo-strategic advantage, or seizing control of precious natural resources. Leaders hope to win public support by describing such actions in terms of high moral purposes – bringing peace, justice, democracy and civilization to the affected area. In the era of colonialism, European governments all cynically insisted that they acted to promote such higher commitments – the “white man’s burden,” “la mission civilisatrice,” and the likes. There have been some instances in the recent past where countries have opened up to outside aid in the aftermath of natural disasters, but sovereignty remains a sticking point. However, the Burmese case is different.

Even though the UN Charter does not say anything about intervention in matters relating to domestic jurisdiction of any state, the Genocide Convention of 1948 also overrode the nonintervention principle to lay down the commitment of the world community to prevent and punish. Yet inaction in response to the Rwanda genocide in 1994 and failure to halt the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia highlight the complexities of international responses to crimes against humanity, and now the case of Burma is clearly on that category.

In 2000, the Canadian government and several other actors announced the establishment of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) to address the challenge of the international community's responsibility to act in the face of the gravest of human rights violations, while respecting the sovereignty of states. It sought to bridge these two concepts with the 2001 Responsibility to Protect (R2P) report.

A year later, the co-chairs of the commission, wrote: "If the international community is to respond to this challenge, the whole debate must be turned on its head. The issue must be reframed not as an argument about the 'right to intervene' but about the 'responsibility to protect.'" (See Foreign Affairs) The document says it was every state's responsibility to protect its citizens from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." If a state fails to do so, the document says, it then becomes the responsibility of the international community to protect that state's population. This document was unanimously adopted by all member states but is not legally binding. The doctrine was hailed by international affairs specialists as a new dawn for peace and security marking the end of a 350-year period in which the inviolability of borders and the monopoly of force within one's own borders were sovereignty's formal hallmarks. This adoption begins to resolve the historic tension between human rights and states' rights in favor of the individual.

The Burmese Case

Following Burma’s cyclone the regime was incapable of providing relief to millions of affected citizens and it refused to let in international aid and aid workers at the most crucial period and let the people die. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested the United Nations invoke the R2P doctrine as the basis for a resolution to allow the delivery of international aid even without the Junta’s permission. But the French proposal faced opposition from Security Council members Russia, China, and South Africa. China's UN ambassador, Liu Zhenmin, argued it was not an issue for the Security Council.

Some contend that R2P is a Western or Northern invention, being imposed on the global South. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was the first two African Secretaries-General of the United Nations -- Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan -- who first explored evolving notions of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention. And now it is the turn of an Asian Ban Ki-moon to follow it up to the predecessor’s footsteps and implement it in Burma.

Please recollect that it was the African Union has been explicit: in the year 2000, five years before the Summit declaration, the African Union asserted “the right of the Union to intervene in a member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity” Hence it is not at all that the right of intervention is a Western notion.

Equally incorrect is the assumption that the responsibility to protect is in contradiction to sovereignty. Properly understood, R2P is an ally of sovereignty, not an adversary. Strong States protect their people, while weak ones are either unwilling or unable to do so. Protection was one of the core purposes of the formation of States and the Westphalian system. By helping States meet one of their core responsibilities, R2P seeks to strengthen sovereignty, not weaken it. This clearly indicates that the Chinese ambassador to the UN Liu Zhenmin’s argument that Burma is not an issue of the UN Security Council is totally wrong. Every intelligent Burmese knows that this is part and parcel of the Chinese Communist imperialistic design for the whole of Southeast Asia. The definition of the R2P has clearly defined that "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."

Again the proponents of the doctrine say another way to raise pressure for action in Burma is to focus on rebuilding the country. Those who helped write the 2001 report emphasized that R2P embraced not just the "responsibility to react" but the "responsibility to prevent" and the "responsibility to rebuild" as well. If so has any of these responsibilities has been accepted by the Burmese military Junta? For the Burmese government is unlikely to handle reconstruction responsibly given its lack of concern over immediate assistance for cyclone victims. For two decades it has proven beyond doubt that it has no policy whatever (domestic or foreign) but to continue to stay in power by hook or by crook.

If Burma were to be compared with other countries, the question arises whether the Burmese Generals have a human heart at all or just power maniacs. In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, one of the worst-hit areas was Indonesia's Aceh Province, where the government had been fighting a secessionist movement for more than four decades. The province, under martial law, was off-limits for most international human rights groups, aid organizations, and reporters. But after initial hesitation, the Indonesian government allowed international aid in what Elizabeth Ferris and Lex Rieffel label as "one of the largest disaster recovery and reconstruction efforts in modern times, as well as the peace agreement which led to the election of a former secessionist leader as governor of the province."

Similarly, after a powerful 2005earthquake rocked the long-disputed Kashmir region dividing India and Pakistan, the Pakistani government decided to give access to international relief agencies. Moreover, it accepted food and relief aid from neighboring India, with which it has fought three wars over Kashmir. The move was significant enough for regional experts to ask if this could lead to peace. More recently, an earthquake in China's Sichuan Province in May 2008 led Beijing to make unprecedented moves to open up. The Chinese government, which in the past has spurned foreign aid, accepted international aid publicly, opened a hotline for the U.S. military to have increased communication with its Chinese counterparts, and eased media restrictions. Yet when it comes to Burma the international community bow down to the Illogical argument of the Burmese Generals, Why? Is it because of the Hypocritical Chinese Dragon breathing smoke over it?

In the past two decades, more than 200 million people per year have been affected by natural disasters, "As the earth’s population increases and its atmosphere warms, floods, typhoons and hurricanes will undoubtedly occur more often, and will certainly have political consequences," according to Ferris and Rieffel of Brookings. At present the world community has limited options for responding to these humanitarian crises. UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 formed guiding principles for the international community's response to humanitarian disasters and was central to the establishment of the office of the UN emergency relief coordinator and the development of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. Why it is not implemented in the Burmese case?

It is to be admitted that ASEAN played an active role in changing the bull headed Burmese Generals, to let in international aid after the initial refusal, experts say. But "if our methods short of armed force have no impact and we are not willing to threaten to use military action, there are no good options," says Stewart M. Patrick, CFR senior fellow and director of the program on international institutions and global governance. The UN Secretary General on this trip must make it very clear to the Burmese men in uniform that in the political negotiations that if they continue to do as the last two decades they will have to face military action and short of nothing else.

Some people argue that the government may be guilty is a crime of omission rather than commission and that in matters of humanitarian disasters everyone's first concern is for the victims and if one chooses to use force assistance would only make the victims worse off as. But one must remember that Burma is unique, the Generals are notoriously cunning, skilful manipulators, cruel and insincere. They are treating the people much worse than cyclone Nagris? Hence the use of armed forces by the UN is very justified not only for the people of Burma which are desperate but also for the geopolitical factors, including the relevance of the country to the world community, regional stability, and the attitudes of other major players. If there is a big wound the best thing to cure is taking the pus out by a surgeon’s knife (military action) then followed by medication. I recollect David Rieff‘s writings "Use any euphemism you wish, but in the end these interventions have to be about regime change if they are to have any chance of accomplishing their stated goal." ( New York Times Magazine).

Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

R2P is not a new code for humanitarian intervention. Rather, it is built on a more positive and affirmative concept of sovereignty as responsibility -- a concept to be distinguished from its conceptual cousin, human security. The latter, who is broader, posits that policy should take into account the security of people, not just of States, across the whole range of possible threats. Besides this concept of responsibility to protect is more firmly anchored in current international law and adopted by the 2005 World Summit and was subsequently endorsed by both the General Assembly and Security Council. R2P was successfully tested for the first time earlier this year following the elections in Kenya. The combined efforts of the African Union, influential Member States, the United Nations and the esteemed predecessor, Kofi Annan, were instrumental in curbing the post-election violence. As the 2005 Summit recognized, there are times when persuasion and peaceful measures fall short. Then a big stick of military action becomes inevitable.

It is the Secretary General’s obligation that United Nations rules, procedures and practices are developed in line with this bold declaration. In other words, the responsibility to protect does not alter the legal obligation of Member States to refrain from the use of force except in conformity with the Charter. Rather, it reinforces this obligation. By bolstering United Nations prevention, protection, response and rebuilding mechanisms, R2P seeks to enhance the rule of law and expand multilateral options. We know that the United Nations was built on ideas, ideals and aspirations, not on quick fixes, sure things or cynical calculations. Burma has been tried for the last two decades and found it is wanting. But the people of Burma have, nevertheless, kept their faith in the UN because it never tires of trying to accomplish the impossible.

The successive humanitarian disasters in Somalia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo and now Darfur, Sudan, have concentrated attention not on the immunities of sovereign Governments but their responsibilities, both to their own people and to the wider international community.

There is a growing recognition that the issue is not the “right to intervene” of any State, but the “responsibility to protect” of every State when it comes to people suffering from avoidable catastrophe — mass murder and rape, ethnic cleansing by forcible expulsion and terror, and deliberate starvation and exposure to disease. And there is a growing acceptance that while sovereign Governments have the primary responsibility to protect their own citizens from such catastrophes, when they are unable or unwilling to do so that responsibility should be taken up by the wider international community — with it spanning a continuum involving prevention, response to violence, if necessary, and rebuilding shattered societies. The primary focus should be on assisting the cessation of violence through mediation and other tools and the protection of people through such measures as the dispatch of humanitarian, human rights and police missions. Force, if it needs to be used, should be deployed as a last resort as it is clear in the case of Burma.

The UN so far has been neither very consistent nor very effective in dealing with these cases, very often acting too late, too hesitantly or not at all. Burma will be a test case for Ban Ki Moon’s visit in Christmas. At a time when China was eulogizing itself in the success of Beijing Olympics and when the Georgia episodes reveals that that the sphere of influence is very much appreciated by the Ta Yoke (the Burmese word for Chinese because he is Yoke Mar) and Kalar (the Burmese word for Indian derived from degrading Hindi word Kar Loo) as none of them say a single word against the Russian bully, the fate of the Burmese people is still in peril. The nefarious and paradoxical aspect, which every Burmese could not comprehend is why the UN so keen on fait accompli by intending to help the unlawful elections of 2010 derived from the illogical Constitution and did not recognise the lawful elections of 1990?

Prof. Kanbawza Win, the incumbent Dean of the Students of the AEIOU Programme, Chiangmai University, Thailand and Professor at the School of International Studies, Simon Fraser University, of British Columbia, Canada can be reached at the SFU Harbor campus in Vancouver.

- Asian Tribune -

Share this


.