Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2860

Crime against Humanity Vs Humanitarian Intervention

Prof. Kanbawza Win

It seems that that the civilized international community will have to choose between the brute (the Burmese Junta) that is committing a crime against humanity or to launch a humanitarian intervention. Even though the Burmese army had been killing its people and committing gross human right violations for the past 46 years (since 1962) their figure could not top more than 100,000. Now by withholding the massive aid donated by the international community to the storm victims, it is in a position to kill millions of the people of Burma, a clear case of crime against humanity.

The basic question that the world is facing is shall we allowed it to happen or stop it? As the death toll from the Burmese cyclone rises hourly, the UN now believes that 220,000 people are missing, while between 1.2 million and 1.9 million are struggling to survive. Witnesses spoke of the homelessness, hunger and diseases but still the Burmese regime is bent on withholding the relief supplies. Unless emergency supplies can be delivered quickly, it is feared that more people will die. Towns and villages in the low-lying Irrawaddy’s delta bore the brunt of the ferocious storm. The area is home to a quarter of the country's population of some 57 million people, and is difficult to reach at the best of times. Now, with the destruction of roads and what few communications there were, the efforts of relief agencies are being hampered further. The spread of disease is a major concern. Even in Rangoon, the former capital, there has been no electricity or running water for most of the city.

What has made the challenge for international organizations even tougher is that power and communications appear to be all but out, even in the country's largest city, Rangoon. Much of the road system has been washed away in the Irrawaddy delta, so assistance teams will need to travel by helicopter and boat. Small Burmese boats that could have been used to carry relief along rivers were destroyed by the cyclone. The cyclone-hit area is Burma's rice bowl, and damage to grain stores was reported. Obtaining clean drinking water is a major problem, and water supplies have been restored in only a few areas around Rangoon. Fuel shortages for trucks and lack of electricity are hampering the relief effort. Water-borne diseases are a real risk to children who survived the cyclone.

Even though 23 international agencies were providing aid to people a large number of organizations were awaiting government clearance for more aid shipments, staff and transport. "It's a race against the clock, if the humanitarian aid does not get into the country on a larger scale, there's the risk of a second catastrophe with people dying from hunger and diseases”, said, Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The storm has been described as the worst natural disaster in South-east Asia since the 2004, Tsunami that claimed a quarter-of-a-million lives in Indonesia, Thailand, India and other countries rimming the Indian Ocean. “The death toll from Cyclone Nargis could increase 15-fold to 1.5 million people in coming weeks unless a tsunami-style relief effort is put in place and access granted to international aid workers,” said Sarah Ireland, the Oxfam's Regional Director for East Asia. This also implies that the Burmese Junta is bent on doubling, if not tripling the figure of Tsunami death. The disaster was turning into a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions by the Burmese regime who are determine to change this natural catastrophe into a man made catastrophe of crime against humanity. Shall the world stand by with folded arms?

In face of unimaginable tragedy where the survivors are gather in makeshift camps around the edges of the disaster zone, with many people suffering from dehydration, and diarrhoea unless aid to cyclone victims is delivered quickly and on a massive scale we will witness the crime against humanity. It was horrendous to know international relief agencies are still waiting for visas to enter the country where movement and access are tightly controlled. Caryl Stern, who heads the UNICEF in the US, told Associated Press: "Our biggest fear is that the aftermath could be more lethal than the storm itself." Preventing the search and rescue team in a totally devastated area it self in such a scale is inhuman.

The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, said "The UN is asking the Burmese government to open its doors but the Burmese replied give us money, we'll distribute it." Hence the hypothesis goes that, if you don’t give the money to us (they will take a lion’s share) they would rather let 1.5 million people died. The Burmese Generals are often heard of quoting we have 57 million in Burma and if 1 or 2 million people die what? Will the civilized people of the world including the Americans allow it? Instead of waiting for figures on casualties and damage to rise it will be far more practical to send humanitarian aid under the US or UN protection?

One cannot wait for the UNSC to have a decision for China and Russia, which has the same mentality like the Burmese Generals and hate democracy, are sure to block it for political reasons. There are many instances where Uncle Sam has taken unilateral actions unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, the whole world is behind the US for this humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. In a world where the wrong is glamorized and the lurid is presented as appealing the Burmese people turned on the only super power in the world to save them.

This Cyclone Nagris is a proper case for coercive intervention under the "responsibility to protect" R2P principle unanimously endorsed by 150 heads of state and government at the 2005 UN World Summit. It is about protecting vulnerable populations from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity" as a last resort where no less extreme form of reaction could possibly halt or avert the tragedy. If what the Generals are now doing, in effectively denying relief to hundreds of thousands of people at real and immediate risk of death, can itself be characterised as a crime against humanity. The Canadian-sponsored commission have clearly initiated the R2P concept of identifying one possible case for the application of military force as "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". The Omnipotent knows the world needs in these situations and for the sake of humanity it is time to end the mass atrocity crimes once and for all. At least the US has facilitated the delivery of humanitarian aid without the host government's consent in some other countries. USAID director Andrew Natsios has called on Washington to launch unilateral airdrops, regardless of the regime’s reaction.

Even though we know that deadly cyclone could shake the stranglehold on power of the country's ruling generals - becoming a force for change more powerful than massive pro-democracy demonstrations and international sanctions, we cannot stand the Junta's decision to block the foreign search and rescue teams is tantamount to killing inaccessible and trapped in areas surrounded by floating dead bodies, without food and shelter. Few people think revolution until they bury their dead. "The juxtaposition of the cyclone and the voting might cause many in Burma to feel this is an indication that the military should not be in power," said David Steinberg of Georgetown University. The Burmese traditional views consider rulers as responsible for natural conditions. If disaster struck, the administration could be considered to have lost "mandate of heaven."

The people will likely remember who came out to help them in their time of need.

The Buddhist monks whom the Junta viciously killed last year have mobilized to provide assistance will further work to undermine whatever credibility the Junta has left. Cases in recent history where disasters helped blaze a trail for reforms include a 1985 earthquake in Mexico that many believe marked the beginning of the end for the long-ruling PRI party; Nicaragua's 1972 earthquake, which led to the decline of the dictator Somoza; and a 1970 cyclone where Pakistan's inadequate relief efforts contributed to the breakaway of the country's east to form Bangladesh. But these are long term decisions. The current problem is emergency relieve which the Junta is desperately trying to prevent from reaching to the people. Hence may we appeal not only for the people of Burma but in the name of humanity?

Prof. Kanbawza Win is a Burmese professor from Simon Fraser University, School of International Studies, helping the education of the Burmese refuges in conjunction with Chiang Mai University of Thailand.

- Asian Tribune -

Share this