A Bold Idea: Deliver Myanmar Aid by Force The U.N. could use soldiers to get aid into Myanmar. But one expert says that's an idea that would require Security Council acquiescence from intervention-shy China, one of two countries that blocked a similar mission into Kosovo in 1999.
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A Bold Idea: Deliver Myanmar Aid by Force

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A Bold Idea: Deliver Myanmar Aid by Force

A Bold Idea: Deliver Myanmar Aid by Force

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We're going to talk now about the situation in Myanmar. Cyclone Nargis hit that country May 3rd, killing at least 60,000 people, and aid now is getting in. But according to a report in the New York Times today, the directors of several relief organizations say that some of the aid intended for cyclone victims have been stolen or diverted by the country's army. Myanmar's government have issued a warning via state radio that people who trade, hoard or misuse international aid will be punished.

More than a million people now risk disease and hunger because aid simply isn't getting to them. The military junta that rules Myanmar has barred foreign aid workers from the areas that are hardest hit by the cyclone. So the question is, does the international community play by Myanmar's rules? Or does it go in and distribute aid without permission? Violate Myanmar's sovereignty to prevent an even greater humanitarian crisis?

Joining us on the phone is Thomas Weiss. He's the former research director for the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. That's the independent body that helped devise what's called the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine. It's the legal provision that could allow a U.N.-authorized forced entry into Myanmar. Hey, Thomas, thanks for joining us.

Dr. THOMAS G. WEISS (Former Research Director, International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty): Good morning.

MARTIN: So French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has been the one to articulate this. He has called for the international community, the members of the United Nations, to invoke what is called the Responsibility to Protect. This is - would give legal justification to force entry into Myanmar to distribute aid. Can you explain just what this doctrine allows?

Dr. WEISS: Well, the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect was formulated after a series of interventions in the 1990s and was approved at the world summit on the 60th anniversary of the U.N. in 2005, and it basically says state sovereignty includes the responsibility of a sovereign state to protect and take care of its own citizens. However, if a state is manifestly unable, or unwilling, to protect its citizens, there is an international responsibility that kicks in, and that international responsibility includes, on occasion, the use of military force to protect human beings.

MARTIN: Let's listen to the French ambassador to the U.N., Jean-Maurice Ripert, articulate some of this.

Ambassador JEAN-MAURICE RIPERT (France): The primary responsibility is with the government of Myanmar. But if it fails, if it cannot or if it doesn't want - if it cannot, we have to do something. If we don't do anything, people will continue to die, epidemics will spread out and it would be a catastrophe.

MARTIN: There is precedent for something like this, going in by force in to a country to administer humanity aid, northern Iraq in 1 or Somalia or Haiti. Correct?

Dr. WEISS: That is correct?

MARTIN: And so, what are the challenges of doing this? What's holding it up?

Dr. WEISS: Well, normally speaking, the use of military force is not something that is undertaken lightly, as we certainly learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in order to take such a decision, one has to be pushed to the limits. And so there is an empirical question here of whether we are at that spot, because in fact, as the United States found out in Somalia, where things turned sour, this is not always a cakewalk...

MARTIN: This is the reference to the "Black Hawk Down" incident, where U.S. soldiers were killed?

Dr. WEISS: That is exactly right, and so one has to be prepared for war fighting. This is not simply the delivery of assistance, unless the government requests such assistance. It's interesting that China - which is obviously very fond its sovereignty, is totally against the concept of the Responsibility to Protect - in its own earthquake disaster, in spite of the power of its own economy and the size of the country, has asked for international assistance.

That is the normal procedure, because natural disasters are not usually seen as political disasters. They are not civil wars and the state normally reaches out and says help. That's what Indonesia or Sri Lanka did, even though they were in the midst of civil wars, after the tsunami in 2004 and five. And so this is really - I hate to use the word - unprecedented, but the - it's quite unusual that a country will refuse outside assistance. But this is, of course, is a fairly unusual un-repressive regime.

MARTIN: So what would be the political repercussions be of forcing aid on Myanmar? State - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said quote, this is not a matter of politics; this is a humanitarian crisis. But as you point out, they're inextricably linked to a certain degree. What would happen politically if the U.N. were to approve some kind of resolution to go in and forcibly administer aid?

Dr. WEISS: Well, the problem is that this could only be done by the Security Council, and the Security Council functions when all five of the permanent members - the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China - agree. Any one of them can say no, and that is the end of the story. I dare say, in this situation, that China would say no, in the same way that China and Russia said no in 1999, when the Kosovo disaster hit.

Therefore, the possibilities that the U.N. will approve this, I think, are virtually nil. And so this is probably going to be akin to the Kosovo operation, in which case NATO made that decision. It was highly controversial. Many people called it strictly illegal in international law terms, because the Security Council did not approve. But almost everyone said it was illegal but justified, because the moral imperative was such that one had to act. I think we are getting preciously close to that in Myanmar.

MARTIN: Well, this is my final question. What determines the tipping point? I mean, as I understand it, the Responsibility to Protect was put together in the wake the Rwandan genocide. You definitely don't want things to get to those proportions. At what point do people say, enough is enough, we are going in?

Dr. WEISS: Well, we - unfortunately, we have said never again on several occasions, and the Reasonability to Project idea doctrine is designed so that "never again" becomes slightly more difficult to say. My sense is that 50 or 60,000 people dead as a result of the natural disaster is one thing. If we see that number doubled because of the conscious foot dragging by the regime itself, then I think you have something that qualifies as a crime against humanity, and that should be enough to trigger a very dramatic action.

MARTIN: It's a grim...

Dr. WEISS: The problem is that military force is not easy, and I'm not sure that this population, or European populations, are very keen at this moment to get involved in another overseas adventure in a poor country in Asia.

MARTIN: Thomas Weiss is the former research director for the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Thomas, thanks very much. We appreciate you being with us today.

Dr. WEISS: My pleasure.

PESCA: I would headline that segment, never again, again.


PESCA: Next on the show, Death Cab for Cutie is in the studio for a performance. They talk to us about their new album, "Narrow Stairs." This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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