A Bold Idea: Deliver Myanmar Aid by Force

U.N. Security Council

hide captionThe U.N. Security Council discusses Kosovo, where a NATO resolution intervened when the council — because of blocking votes from Russia and China, which both generally oppose intervention of any kind — could not.

Ray Abrams/AFP/Getty Images
Awaiting supplies in Myanmar

hide captionDesperately awaiting supplies in Myanmar, where the ruling junta continues to bar entry to relief workers and journalists alike.

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France has suggested the United Nations use soldiers to get humanitarian aid into Myanmar, a plan to prevent "crimes against humanity" that would require Security Council acquiescence from intervention-shy China. That stumbling block is probably enough to block the proposal's passage, according to professor Thomas Weiss, who says it could take double the cyclone's 60,000 death toll to spur world response.

"The possibilities the U.N. will approve [intervention] are virtually nil," says Weiss, a professor and director of international relations at the CUNY Graduate Center.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said the abandonment of Myanmar's cyclone victims is not politics but "a humanitarian crisis." According to Weiss, though, it's precisely politics and international law that's hamstringing rescuers.

It's an unusual situation that the U.N. is considering high-level diplomacy and military force after something like a major earthquake, Weiss says. After major international disasters, he says, states almost always ask for help. "This is really — and I hate to use the word unprecedented — but it's quite unusual that a country would refuse outside assistance."

Refuse they have: The unusually repressive Myanmar junta continues to bar most foreign aid workers, and reports suggest that soldiers there are at best diverting resources from needy victims and are at worst outright stealing food and medicine.

"The primary responsibility is with the government of Myanmar," says Jean-Maurice Ripert, French ambassador to the U.N. "[But] we have to do something. People will continue to die. Epidemics will spread. And it will be a disaster."

Precedent for Intervention

In order to ease a plan for intervention, the U.N. could point to a legal provision passed by the body in 2005 called the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine — an opinion that Weiss helped write. "If a state is manifestly unable or unwilling to protect its citizens," Weiss says, because of this document, "there is an international responsibility that kicks in, and that responsibility can include the use of force."

The problem, Weiss says, is that the United Nations can act on the global stage only with the approval of the Security Council, which itself only functions if all five permanent member countries agree. "Any one of them could say no," Weiss says.

There is precedent. One of the last times the U.N. body faced a similar crisis — in Kosovo, in 1999 — China and Russia both blocked action. That event wasn't a natural disaster — it involved ethnic fighting — but the urgency was similar.

Following U.N. gridlock, the group of nations known as NATO made a decision to mount a bombing campaign to eject militant Serbs and return Albanian refugees. "Many people called it strictly illegal," Weiss says. "But almost everyone said it was illegal but justified. The moral imperative was such that one had to act."

Weiss says the timing of the Myanmar predicament couldn't be more interesting. China is totally against such interventions, Weiss says. But just days after the Myanmar cyclone, a country that is very much in love with its own sovereignty was facing its own disaster, and despite its robust economy and go-it-alone instincts, China has asked for and received outside assistance.

Will Iraq-Weary Nations Say Never Again, Again?

Weiss says there are innumerable barriers to a forced delivery of aid to Myanmar. First of all, he says, the use of military force should never be taken lightly.

"As we certainly learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to take such a decision, one has to be pushed to the limits ... Are we at that spot?" he asks.

And as the U.S. discovered in Somalia — where during a 1993 mission a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, leading in part to the death of 18 troops — even smaller-scale humanitarian-based efforts are not always a cakewalk, Weiss says.

"One has to be prepared for war fighting," Weiss says. "This is not simply the delivery of assistance."

That said, Weiss says the world is getting perilously close to a tipping point, when intervening won't be a discussion but an absolute humanitarian necessity.

Right now, the cyclone toll in Myanmar is forecast to reach as high as 60,000. "But if we see that number doubled because of the conscious foot-dragging by the regime itself, then we have something that qualifies as a crime against humanity."

Will the words "crime against humanity" sway China and other hesitant U.N. members? Weiss says the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine was designed so that "never again" is harder to say. But he realizes how difficult a pill the idea of intervention is.

"Military force is not easy," Weiss says. "I'm not sure this population or European populations are very keen at this moment to get involved in another overseas adventure."

Correction May 20, 2008

The original version of this story mistakenly reported that 18 Marines were killed on a 1993 mission in Somalia. Those troops were in fact members of the Army Rangers and Delta Force.

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