Sunday, May 18, 2008

Could Myanmar Be The First Case of RTP?

At the Summit of the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 world leaders agreed that in the event a national government failed to protect its population from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity," the "international community" could step in and do so. That "Responsibility to Protect" (RTP) principle has not been invoked anywhere, not in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where several million people have been killed in a continuing struggle for the country's rich resources, nor in the Sudan, where ethnic cleansing has been in progress in full view of a watching world. But there is corridor talk at the UN of invoking the principle to get international aid workers into Myanmar to help with the deadly mess left by Typhoon Nargis.

Talk of such action is far-fetched, if only because China would veto any Security Council action to invoke RTP in the case of Myanmar, but the country's envoy at the UN seems nervous at the possibility. At an informal meeting of the General Assembly on Friday (16 May), at which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed delegates on his so far ineffective efforts to even talk to the junta's ranking General, Ambassador Kyaw Tint Swe accused France of sending a warship to the Bay of Bengal. French Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert denied the accusation, saying that the ship was only carrying 1,500 metric tons of food and relief supplies. He told reporters that the ship also had the capacity to establish a field hospital, which could be put ashore by helicopter or by the small boats capable of navigating the shallow waters of the Irrawaddy delta.

Whether an attempt to deliver aid from the ship will be made without the authorization of the junta in Yangon is a matter of speculation. If it is indeed made, and meets armed resistance, the response could sidestep the Security Council. If there is no resistance, a more pervasive aid effort could be set in motion without the junta's ukase. The case for international action is being clearly laid by French and British comments on the situation. On Friday French UN envoy Ripert told journalists that the Myanmar government's failure to allow foreign aid could "lead to a true crime against humanity." On Saturday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the BBC that the refusal of the junta to "allow the international community to do what it wants to do" was "inhuman treatment of the Burmese people."

The possibility of international intervention without its permission is bound to weigh on the junta as it receives a third letter on Sunday from Ban Ki-moon, this one carried by UN Humanitarian Affairs chief John Holmes; the first two letters were sent through the Myanmar mission at the UN, and neither has brought a reply. Ban has failed repeatedly to reach Myanmar's "Senior General," Than Shwe by phone.

The latest assessment from the UN is that only about 500,000 of the approximately 2.5 million victims of Typhoon Nargis have received any form of aid.

Part of the problem might be that the junta itself is in the middle of a power struggle; 74-year old Than Shwe had surgery to remove an intestinal tumor last year (in Singapore), and is clearly on his last legs. Who will succeed him as head of the Orwellian "State Peace and Democracy Council" is not clear. The current "second in command" is reported to not have "political support," though it is anyone's guess what exactly that means in a country where a popular democracy movement has been brutally put down for decades.

The UN's diplomatic efforts at the moment seem to be focused on getting ASEAN countries to take the lead in pressuring Myanmar to open up to foreign aid. Ban Ki-moon is said to harbor hopes of visiting the country himself once a certain "comfort level" has been established in relations with the regime.

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