"I Know You Won’t

If you’ve been following the news at all lately, you’ll know a massive cyclone struck the country of Myanmar, formerly Burma. The impact of the cyclone devastated a large area of the country. Estimates of casualties are currently around 60,000; but some agencies believe the toll is more likely around 100,000. Approximately 1.5 million people are homeless. This is a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions, the worst since the tsunami of December 26, 2006 that killed 250,000 people. And if the Myanmar government continues to act as it has been, the death toll could reach 250,000 very easily.

The most pathetic part of this whole situation is the fact the Myanmar government has been more concerned with the outcome of its constitutional ratification process than with the health, safety and general welfare of its citizens.

One of the most fundamental tenets of the liberal ideal of government is that governments are created for the benefit of the people and vice versa. Clearly the Myanmar government does not hold this belief.

Any aid coming into the country (and that’s not a whole lot since the government has let few planes land) has been confiscated by the military regime. It has been handed out in a random fashion with the names of powerful members of the country’s ruling military elite written in bold letters. The military regime will not give up any chance to spread propaganda, no matter how false.

The governmental also refused to give up another opportunity to cement its hold on power in Myanmar. A constitutional vote, scheduled long ago, was held this past weekend – despite the devastation of some parts of the country. For the first time in 18 years, people in Myanmar were allowed to vote. Sadly, most people did not understand what to do, as voting is a foreign, unheard of concept. Many voters were given ballots where ‘Yes’ was already checked off. Others were intimidated into voting for the new constitution. Temporary shelters were closed to make way for polling stations. And while part of the country continues to rot under water, state-run television blared commercials reminding people of the upcoming vote.

There could be no more clear-cut example of a government that is incapable of (and in this case blatantly refuses to ) protecting its citizens. And protecting its people is the first and foremost purpose of the state. So what do we do?

Some academics and others international community are advocating the use of the doctrine “Responsibility to Protect,” more familiarly known as R2P. R2P is a concept created and promoted by the International Commission on Intervention and Sovereignty, supported by the Government of Canada under the Liberals.

Now, I wrote a lengthy essay on R2P for my International Relations class last summer, so I’m going to let it explain the principles of R2P:

R2P advances the idea that sovereignty “implies a dual responsibility: externally, to respect the sovereignty of other states, and internally, to respect the dignity and basic rights of all the people within the state.”[1] The ICISS frames sovereignty notas control, but as responsibility, and “where the state fails in that responsibility, through either incapacity or ill-will, a secondary responsibility to protect falls on
the wider international community.”[2] To put it more simply, “the state’s duty to the individual is so important that it must also be borne by the international community.”[3]

The ICISS report on R2P states: “Thinking of sovereignty as responsibility, in a way that is being increasingly recognized in state practice, has a threefold significance. First, it implies that the state authorities areresponsible for the functions of protecting the safety and lives of citizens and promotion of their welfare. Secondly, it suggests that the national political authorities are responsible to the citizens internally and to the international community through the UN. And thirdly, it means that the agents of states are responsible for their actions; that is to say, they are accountable for their acts of commission and omission.”[4] In this sense, all states have a responsibility to provide an environment in which there is no risk of systemic violence, rape or starvation; states have “obligations” to fulfill.[5]

The R2P philosophy maintains that a state “has the primary responsibility to protect the individuals within it.”[6] Therefore, a state will be given time and support to try and avert humanitarian crises on its own. In this sense, the language of R2P is “overwhelmingly preventive”;[7] military intervention is an “exceptional and extraordinary” last course of action only to be used after all other avenues have been explored.

The ICISS puts forth six criteria which must be considered in order to justify military intervention:
1. The ‘Just Cause’ Threshold: There must be significant and infallible evidence that
mass killing or ethnic cleansing is about to occur or is occurring.
2. Right intention: States must have altruistic intentions, with no economic or political motives other than to protect those who are in danger.
3. Last resort: All other avenues for preventing imminent atrocities must have
been explored.
4. Proportional means: Only the military capabilities absolutely necessary to prevent
mass killing from occurring should be used. Military occupation is temporary, not permanent.
5. Reasonable prospects: There must be a reasonable chance that the military interventionplanned will succeed and not cause more harm than good.
6. Right authority: Authority should come from the UN Security Council, but if it is
unable to come to a consensus, the ICISS report outlines other means for gaining approval for military intervention.[8]

It is only when these six criteria are satisfied that military intervention can be considered. It is important to recognize that the ICISS recommends that military intervention be used only “for the worst cases [of human suffering], otherwise consensus will evaporate and there will be no sense of obligation even to deal with another Rwanda.”[9] In other words, the international community cannot be like the little boy who cried “Wolf!” one too many times, because complacency will eventually set in, and when help is actually needed, no one will come.

Now this is all fine, good and noble – on paper. But in reality, it’s a recipe for possible disaster. Militarily intervening in countries such as Myanmar may create a humanitarian disaster far worse than the one it was originally designed to prevent. And does the world really want another Iraq? The US went into Iraq to ‘save’ its people; are they truly any better off? These are questions which seriously need to be considered before any strong actions are taken.

I personally believe in the principles of R2P. My life is worth no more than that of a woman in Myanmar today, who struggles daily to feed her family, rebuild her life after a natural disaster and find a way to provide and care for those she loves. We are both human and because of our common humanity, she has the same right to life and liberty that I have. Lucky for me, I was born in Canada, and she was born in Myanmar. That is the only difference. As Gareth Evans states,

“But at the end of the day the case for R2P rests simply on our common humanity: the impossibility of ignoring the cries of pain and distress of our fellow human beings. For any of us in and around the international community – from individuals to NGOs to national governments to international organizations – to yet again ignore that distress and agony, and to once again make ‘never again’ a cry that rings totally emptily, is to diminish that common humanity to the point of despair. We should be united in our determination to not let that happen, and there is no greater or nobler cause on which any of us could be embarked.”[10]

But the world is not yet ready for R2P, and I doubt it ever will be. Look at Darfur. The world still refuses to acknowledge that genocide is occurring in Sudan. The lessons of Rwanda have not been learned. The world will not act. Human nature’s obsession with power will always stand in the way.

So what can we do? Pressure our government to pressure the Myanmar government. Hope that common sense and human decency will prevail.

And pray. Very hard.

References:
[1] Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, “The Responsibility to Protect,” Foreign Affairs 81, no. 6 (November-December 2002): 102. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (11 August 2007).
[2] Gareth Evans, The Limits of State Sovereignty: The Responsibility to Protect in the 21st Century (Colombo: 29 July 2007), presented to the International Center for Ethnic Studies as the Eighth Neelam Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture. Available: (7 August 2007).
[3] William R. Pace and Nicole Deller, “Preventing Future Genocides: An International Responsibility to Protect,” World Order 36, no. 4 (2006): 19. Available from International Crisis Group, Responsibility to Protect bibliography .
[4] ICISS, 13.
[5] Jeremy I. Levitt, “The Responsibility to Protect: A Beaver Without a Dam?” Michigan Journal of International Law 25, no. 153 (Fall 2003): 155. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (10 August 2007).
[6] Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: From an Idea to an International Norm.
[7] Evans, The Limits of State Sovereignty: The Responsibility to Protect in the 21st Century.
[8] ICISS, xii.
[9] Gareth Evans, “Humanity did not justify this war,” Financial Times (15 May 2003). Available: (12 August 2007).
[10] Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: The Power of An Idea (Berkeley: 14 March 2007), presented to the Human Rights Center, University of California at Berkeley International Conference on the Responsibility to Protect: Preventing Mass Atrocities. Available: (15 August 2007).
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