R2P and Burma

Gareth Evans writes about R2P and Myanmar in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald. Evans was a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments. He is president of the International Crisis Group and co-chairman of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. While José Alvarez highlights significant problems with R2P in The Schizophrenias of R2P that are difficult to get around, Burma presents, perhaps, one of the strongest cases for R2P action. In addition to Evans’ piece below, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon advanced R2P arguments in an interview on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Criminal Inaction a Call to Arms

Gareth Evans
Sydney Morning Herald
May 16, 2008

If the intransigence of the Burmese generals continues, we will have to face the question of whether in the name of humanity some international action should be taken against their will – such as military air drops, or supplies being landed from ships – to get aid to the huge numbers who desperately need it.

Last week, Bernard Kouchner, France’s Foreign Minister, argued, as others are now doing, that this is a proper case for coercive intervention under the “responsibility to protect” principle unanimously endorsed by 150 heads of state and government at the 2005 UN world summit. His proposal was immediately rejected by China and Russia, which are always sensitive about intervention in internal affairs, but it also generated concern that such an “incendiary” approach would be counterproductive in winning any still-possible co-operation from the generals.

It also provoked the argument from humanitarian relief agencies – who know what they are talking about – that any effort to drop supplies without an effective supporting relief on the ground would be hopelessly inefficient, and maybe even dangerous, with the prospect of misuse of medical supplies.
These are strong arguments but as the days go by with the prospect of an enormously greater death toll looming, they are sounding less compelling, and at the very least, need revisiting. My own initial concern, and it remains a serious one, was that Kouchner’s proposition had the potential to dramatically undercut international support for another great cause.

The “responsibility to protect” as it was conceived – as I well know, as one of the architects of the doctrine – is not about human security generally, or protecting people from the impact of natural disasters, or the ravages of HIV/AIDS or anything of that kind.

Rather, “R2P” is about protecting vulnerable populations from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. That is the language of the 2005 UN General Assembly resolution, and Security Council resolutions that have followed it, and it is only in that context that the question should even arise of intervening in a country against the express will of its government. Even then, it allows the use of military force only with Security Council endorsement, and as a last resort.
If R2P is capable of being invoked in anything other than a context of mass atrocity crimes, then such consensus as there is in favour of the new norm will evaporate in the global south. And that means that when the next case of genocide or ethnic cleansing comes along, we will be back to the same depressing arguments about the primacy of sovereignty that led us into the horrors of inaction in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s.

But here’s the rub. 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, then the principle does indeed kick in. The Canadian-sponsored commission report that initiated the R2P concept anticipated just this situation, in 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 UN resolution does not pick up this specific language, but it does refer to “crimes against humanity”. The definition of such crimes (in the Rome statute establishing the International Criminal Court, as well as in customary international law) embraces, along with widespread or systematic murder, torture, persecution and the like, “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health”.

There is, as always, lots for the lawyers to argue about in all of this. And there will be lots for the Security Council to quarrel about. But when a government default is as grave as the course on which the Burmese generals seem set, there is at least a prima facie case to answer for their intransigence being a crime against humanity – of a kind which would attract the responsibility to protect principle. And that bears thinking about, fast, both by the Security Council, and the generals.
Guardian News & Media

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