Monday, May 12, 2008

To Send Aid Or Not To Send Aid, That Is The Question

In the wake of the destruction left by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar (Burma) -- the government is announcing 23, 335 deaths and 37, 019 people missing, while international humanitarian organizations are putting the death toll at more than 100,000 and more than 1 million displaced people -- the international community is faced with a difficult decision of how best to aid the suffering people. Initially, the ruling junta obstructed relief efforts, stopping aid shipments at the airport, seizing UN food packages, and holding off US naval ships coming to help. On Friday, the junta reversed course, announcing that it would "accept aid from any corner"and allowing emergency UN food shipments to enter the country, delivering food and temporary shelters (although a shipment from the World Food Programme that arrived on Friday was seized). On Saturday, the Myanmar government began handing out food packages emblazoned with the names of the junta members and taking credit for the relief. Despite the devastation wreaked by the cyclone, the junta was intending on proceeding with a previously-scheduled "referendum" on a constitution that would further entrench the power of the junta, and the provision of aid seems to be a propaganda exercise designed to cement support for the vote.

Meanwhile, as the government controls and exploits relief supplies for its own ends, relief experts are warning of impending catastrophe if help is not provided soon:
A total of 23 international agencies were providing aid to people in the devastated areas, said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Byrs said another U.N. flight with 33 tons of plastic sheets, water and sanitation items and mosquito nets got clearance to take off from Brindisi, Italy later on Saturday.

But a large number of organizations still were awaiting government clearance for more aid shipments, staff and transport.

"It's a race against the clock," Byrs said. "If the humanitarian aid does not get into the country on a larger scale, there's the risk of a second catastrophe," she said, adding that people could die from hunger and diseases.

Health experts have warned there was a great risk of diarrhea and cholera spreading because of the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation.


"We think we need to be moving 375 tonnes of food a day down into the affected areas. We are doing less than 20 percent of that," World Food Program spokesman Marcus Prior said in the Thai capital.

At the United Nations in New York, Ban delivered his most critical comments so far of the Myanmar authorities' response.

"Today is the 11th day since ... Nargis hit Myanmar," Ban told reporters. "I want to register my deep concern -- and immense frustration -- at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis.

"We are at a critical point," he said. "Unless more aid gets into the country very quickly, we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today's crisis."

Myanmar's reclusive military government was accepting aid from the outside world, including the United Nations, but refused to admit foreign experts waiting in Bangkok for visas from the Myanmar Embassy.

Whenever humanitarian emergencies occur in the most repressive countries of the world, as is the case here or during famines in North Korea, the international community is faced with an exceedingly difficult political and moral choice: Provide aid, knowing that much of it will be diverted for use by the government and hoping that some of it will trickle down to the people, or refuse to help, believing that helping the government remain in power is the worst option. Usually, the international community chooses to help.

In this case, the decision is complicated by the blatant manipulation of the aid in connection with the constitutional referendum. If the reports are accurate, the relief effort will end up further entrenching the junta in power, now with the cloak of democratic approval. That does not bode well for the future of the Burmese people.

So what else should be done? Assuming that doing nothing is off of the table, there are really only two options: Provide relief without going through the government through airdrops or invade the country to force the government to allow access to relief experts and the depoliticized distribution of food, medicine, and shelter. None of these is really an attractive option.

Many people have begun discussing the possibility of providing aid without going through the junta. Mark Faramaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, argued that the UN should begin providing aid throughout the country without permission from the military leaders, but Douglas Alexander, the British Secretary for International Development, argues that doing so would be "incendiary":
"Our responsibility is to make sure that our sole focus is getting the aid to the people who desperately need it."

He said carrying out forced air-drops of supplies would be the wrong action to take.

"We believe that the best way forward would be for the junta to provide access, which the whole international community - including Ban Ki-moon [secretary general of the UN] - is requesting.

"That's why we've been making direct approaches, but we've also been speaking to other governments, including the government of China, urging them that there should be a united front to say that the access needs to be provided immediately."

Even those in favor of airdropping relief supplies acknowledge that doing so may not provide relief in anything approaching an efficient manner:

Former Liberal Democratic leader Sir Menzies Campbell said air drops were a "possibility" because of the scale of the disaster, but were not the most efficient way of distributing supplies.

"I don't think we have any legal right to impose it - we might have a moral obligation.

"But I don't believe we could give effect to that moral obligation for this reason - Burma is essentially a state run by the generals with an extremely powerful army.

"Any effort to impose humanitarian aid might well be the subject of resistance which would have the effect of damaging yet more of the people of that blighted country."

Former Conservative deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine said air drops should only be considered if they could be guaranteed to be effective.

"Who is going to be at the receiving end of the air drops? It could be the Burmese army. It could be the very people least affected by the tragedy that is going on."

Meanwhile, arguments for invading Myanmar have been raised as well. Writing in the Asia Times, Shawn Crispin argues that:

A unilateral - and potentially United Nations-approved - US military intervention in the name of humanitarianism could easily turn the tide against the impoverished country's unpopular military leaders, and simultaneously rehabilitate the legacy of lame-duck US President George W Bush's controversial pre-emptive military policies.


In the wake of the cyclone, the criminality of the junta's callous policies has taken on new human proportions in full view of the global community. Without a perceived strong UN-led response to the natural disaster, hard new questions will fast arise about the UN's own relevance and ability to manage global calamities.

This week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher suggested that the UN invoke its so-called "responsibility to protect" civilians as legitimate grounds to force aid delivery, regardless of the military government's objections. On Friday, a UN spokesman called the junta's refusal to issue visas to aid workers "unprecedented" in the history of humanitarian work.

Because of the UN's own limited powers of projection, such a response would require US military management and assets. US officials appear to be building at least a rhetorical case for a humanitarian intervention. While offering relief and aid with one hand, top US officials have with the other publicly slapped at the Myanmar government's lame response to the disaster.


This time, it is almost sure-fire that Myanmar's desperate population would warmly welcome a US-led humanitarian intervention, considering that its own government is now withholding emergency supplies. Like his father then, Bush is now clearly focused on his presidential legacy, which to date will be judged harshly due to his government's controversial pre-emptive military policies, waged until now exclusively in the name of fighting global terror.

In an era when the US routinely launches pre-emptive military strikes, including its 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2003 Predator drone assassination attack against an alleged al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, a similar drone attack in 2006 in northwestern Pakistan, and last week's attack against a reputed al-Qaeda ringleader in Somalia, it is not inconceivable that the US might yet intervene in military-run Myanmar, particularly if in the days ahead the social and political situation tilts towards anomie.

Whether or not a US military intervention in the name of humanitarianism would, as in Somalia, eventually morph into an armed attempt at regime change and nation-building would likely depend on the population's and Myanmar military's response to the first landing of US troops. Some political analysts speculate that Myanmar's woefully under-resourced and widely unpopular troops would defect en masse rather than confront US troops.

While Myanmar ally China would likely oppose a US military intervention, Beijing has so far notably goaded the junta to work with rather than against international organizations like the UN, and more to the point, it lacks the power projection capabilities to militarily challenge the US in a foreign theater. Most notably, the US would have at its disposal a globally respected and once democratically elected leader in Aung San Suu Kyi to lead a transitional government to full democracy.
But, in Time magazine, Romesh Ratnesar writes that:

A coercive humanitarian intervention would be complicated and costly. During the 2004 tsunami, some 24 U.S. ships and 16,000 troops were deployed in countries across the region; the mission cost the U.S. $5 million a day. Ultimately, the U.S. pledged nearly $900 million to tsunami relief. (By contrast, it has offered just $3.25 million to Burma.) But the risks would be greater this time: the Burmese government's xenophobia and insecurity make them prone to view U.S. troops — or worse, foreign relief workers — as hostile forces. (Remember Black Hawk Down?) Even if the U.S. and its allies made clear that their actions were strictly for humanitarian purposes, it's unlikely the junta would believe them. "You have to think it through — do you want to secure an area of the country by military force? What kinds of potential security risks would that create?" says [Jan Egeland, the former U.N. emergency relief coordinator]. "I can't imagine any humanitarian organization wanting to shoot their way in with food."
So, what to do? Despite the rafts of criticism I have leveled at the institution, this is a case where the UN can potentially be a critical asset. The problem here is, of course, one of sovereignty. Myanmar is a sovereign state that has the right to determine how it receives international aid. But the UN should invoke its "responsibility to protect" doctrine (the logic that enabled the UN to retroactively approve of NATO's intervention in Kosovo) and declare that sovereignty does not confer the right to deny one's people of basic supplies and relief. The UN should, as it did in 1990, put together a global coalition of humanitarian and military forces to deliver relief supplies to Myanmar. Most of the coercive force would, of course, come from the US, but the international community could, as it did during Operation Desert Shield/Storm, bear much of the financial burden (and provide much of the relief as well). While obtaining China's assent may be difficult (China is both a patron to Myanmar and exceedingly wary of authorizing international violations of state sovereignty), the recent negative publicity of the problems in Tibet may lead Beijing to seize this as an opportunity to burnish China's image leading up to the Olympics.

The US needs to look at the disaster in Myanmar through a strategic, as well as a moral, lens. Just as US relief in the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami was a major boost to US soft power, taking an aggressive approach to helping the victims of Cyclone Nargis can have a similar effect. The US must realize that doing the right thing here is clearly in the US national interest as well. The US should pressure China and the UN Security Council to authorize a humanitarian mission with or without official sanction. Such a move could save tens or hundreds of thousands of lives, help the US image, and even force the UN to reconsider its slavish devotion to the concept of sovereign equality. All of these are excellent goals for US foreign policy.


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