Humanitarian crisis in Myanmar

RANGOON, MYANMAR – Exactly two years after the Irrawaddy region of Myanmar was devastated by cyclone Nargis, its fateful twin, Paduak, has arrived in the same fateful region with even more disastrous effects.

Ironically, Paduak is the national flower sometimes worn in the hair of Aung San Suu Kyi, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who many Burmese believed, was their country’s greatest hope for democracy. She won the country’s last democratic election in 1990, whose results were nullified, before being placed under arrest by the ironically named “State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)”, an austere and isolated military junta that seized power in 1962.

Thousands of people are starving to death every week, and the increasing incidence of disease threatens to skyrocket that number. The impact of Paduak and the refusal by the SPDC to allow international organizations to deliver food aid because it fears an international conspiracy characterizes an eerily familiar human catastrophe: the SPDC has blocked the arrival of relief supplies and foreign disaster relief workers into the country, refusing to issue sufficient visas. Senior General Than Shwe is vehemently opposed to international intervention in the country, the eventual progress made by the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), formed to coordinate the relief effort after cyclone Nargis hit by the Association of South East Asian States (ASEAN) in concert with the United Nations and representatives from the SPDC, has been abandoned.

Hundreds of people have been arrested for protesting the food shortages, and the army has shot protestors, who peacefully assembled in front of the old parliament building. Widespread and serious violations of human rights are occurring, and Shwe is doing nothing to end the situation, turning a blind eye to the army’s treatment of protestors. He has remained in the new capital of Naypyidaw, about ten hours north of the former capital, Yangon, and the disaster area.

Secretary General Ban Ki Moon along with other influential players in the international community have grappled with the question of how to tackle the problem in as timely and principled a manner as possible. Utilizing the framework laid out in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), mainly prevention and protection of crimes against humanity and rebuilding in affected regions, while remaining mindful of the fragility of its future effectiveness, if misapplied irrationally or disproportionally, the Secretary General has recalled his old trusted colleague, Agboola Gambari, to present to the Security Council his recommendations.

May 27, 2010

Recommendations on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar

To: UN Security Council UN Security General
Cc: Director-General ASEAN

Subject: Responsibility to Protect, beyond military intervention

Dear Colleagues,

In response to his Excellency Mr. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s request for recommendations to address the grave situation on the ground in Myanmar, my staff and I have consulted with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Development Group (UNDR), the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN World Food Program (WFP), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the African Union (AU), certain members of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), regional governments, select diplomats and political scientists, as well as non-governmental organizations (INGOs and NGOS) and civil society organizations already based in Myanmar. We have developed the vital input from a range of sources into what I believe is a balanced interpretation of and realistic proposal for the application of the Responsibility to Protect principle as a means of transforming this conflict into a more stable future for the people of Myanmar. We have drafted a working document, and are prepared to enact our program with the cooperation of the aforementioned organization. Its fate rests on our ability to bridge the complimentary and dissenting views of Security Council members here today.

Many thanks,

Agboola Gambari,
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
Special Envoy for improved access to Myanmar

Interpretation of the Responsibility to Protect

We accept the conception of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as laid out by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), as the responsibility of each nation to protect the universal human rights of all people inside its borders to the best of its ability. In order to put a stop to human catastrophe, the sovereign right of nations is to be honoured only until that nation is no longer willing or able to protect its people from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or ethnic cleansing. Building upon the spirit of the Rome Statute, it is a responsibility not a right to intervene on humanitarian grounds. Nine of the fifteen Security Council members, including all permanent ones, must give consent before military intervention takes place, as a last resort, after diplomatic and economic measures have been exhausted.[1]

We accept R2P as an established norm within the canon of international law and as a linking set of diplomatic options between state sovereignty and military intervention.[2] The fragility of the principle lies in the challenge of tailoring the appropriate response to each case. Responses need not be militaristic or unnecessarily encroach on a nation’s sovereignty. By emphasizing the primary goal of aiding the victims of humanitarian crises and by de-emphasizing reproachful rhetoric, efforts at diplomatic and cultural exchange and negotiation are compromised less. Heavy-handed denunciations offer little incentive to nations to cooperate, improve on less than stellar human rights records and more actively participate in the affairs of the international community.

When preventive measures to address crimes against humanity, like the early warning capability with timely surveillance and fluid communication within networks of international bodies, integrate short and long term goals in its application, when the threshold for just response is not abused, and when its commensurate responsibility to rebuild is followed, the principles of R2P need not focus on entry and exit strategy. R2P has potential to become an ongoing process: a framework that binds nations together in mutual commitments, and focuses upon transforming conflicted nations and relations within the international community.

We accept that the R2P is a potential agent of progress when applied with a sense of proportion to humanitarian crises. Sober appraisal of realities in every case and corresponding allocations of required resources, while remaining sensitive to and perceptive of the reasons why some nations feel threatened by it, are essential to its longevity. R2P has potential to become an increasingly legitimate means of transforming crises into opportunities to prevent conflict, while preparing for a less conflicted future.

With respect to how to intervene in an uncooperative nation to avert or stop a humanitarian crisis, we accept that both coercive measures, like economic sanctions or trade blockade, and non-coercive measures, like persuasion and appeals to both morality and self-interest, should be taken. Let us spend every last resource, on every level of diplomacy, before indulging in that which we seek to eliminate: violent action. Though human rights violations are prevalent in Myanmar, the situation doesn’t pass the threshold of just cause for military intervention because genocide is not taking place, ethnic cleansing is not taking place in the disaster area, and war crimes and crimes against humanity, are not happening on a large enough scale to risk increasing the death toll by starting a civil war.

Recommendations and Reasoning

To: the Security Council

Enacting the relief effort

Intervene immediately because we have a responsibility to protect human life, yet oppose military intervention, and favour the use of diplomatic resources to persuade, and potentially coerce, Shwe into allowing access into Myanmar by NGOs and all relevant UN agencies with required relief supplies. The informed view that an effective relief effort is more likely with a cooperative SPDC and a cooperative SPDC is more likely without enforcement underlay the emphasis of diplomacy over military intervention.

Direct call for access to Myanmar for NGOS, UN agencies and regional government representatives and diplomats. Communicate through TCG and ASEAN. Reaffirm viability of human rights with resolution in the General Assembly, prioritize those rights most often violated in South East Asian countries, but place no demand on Myanmar in this public setting.

Promote regional leadership. In the specific context of a second natural disaster and a second human rights crisis in two years, we prevail upon the governments of China and Russia especially, as well as India; applying a reasonable application of R2P, to use all non-violent measures they see fit to convince the Myanmar government to allow access and aid past its borders. Each has significant bargaining power as trading partners with which to sway the Myanmar government.

Reduce immediately all public denunciations of the State Peace and Development Council by UN member states, as part of an overall strategy to keep lines of communication as open as possible. Develop the case for non-military intervention through the TCG, and ASEAN. Include representatives, in a secondary capacity, from the AU and ICISS.

Clarify with the SPDC that to permit foreign governments and INGOs entry into the country is both humanitarian and in its best interest. By respecting human rights and displaying a willingness to protect its people, it can assure itself of less international criticism and threats of military intervention. Bi-lateral talks between regional allies may be more amenable to help enact our objectives expediently.

Support bi-lateral talks between Indonesia and Myanmar, the former, in its similar history of military-rule, could illustrate the usefulness of accepting foreign aid, as exemplified by its experience of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the coordinated international response that quickly followed. Its government was not removed by foreign powers as the SPDC seems to think is a distinct possibility in its case.

Call upon Thai government to inform Myanmar of its experience with national disaster response and component international coordination. This is another case that we can use to show Myanmar that our modus operandi is to save human lives not to overthrow the government.

Call upon the Japanese government, another nation with militaristic history and fading insular tendency could, too, serve to legitimate the failings of such an international disposition and hurry minds to change within the governing junta, i.e. opening its borders to the international relief effort.

Act and organize doggedly, once inside Myanmar. This situation is too grave to misuse time in exhaustive consultation. Tripartite Core Group (TCG) members, ASEAN and UN resident coordinator Bishow Parajuli with his staff, are eager to resume dialogue with decision-makers in the Myanmar government. China, Russia and India, in each of their bi-lateral talks must, at the very least, persuade it to continue its essential work with the TCG.

Emphasize the futility of an insular international approach. All outside countries, at the very least through internet, know a significant amount about the state of affairs in Myanmar. Sovereignty has taken on new meaning with the advent of globalization. We are inextricably interconnected, so the effort of the SPDC to isolate itself from the international community is in vain.

Build upon existing foundations. The regional post-disaster coordination mechanism[3], though far too slow to organize after Nargis hit, should be activated immediately in Myanmar and readied in other nations, once this conflict reaches manageable condition.

Mobilize UN agencies and NGOs and other reputable human rights groups on the ground[4], especially through the expertise and on the ground know-how of the resident coordinator to Myanmar, Bishow Parajuli. Distribute aid with expedience as a guiding notion. Call for massive aid influx distributed through various UN agencies and that focuses on humanitarian needs (potable water, sanitation, safe foods, and medical care) through a multitude of speeches delivered to the General Assembly.

If the Myanmar government won’t cooperate, the previous suggestion by Garreth Evans of an aid drop of food and relief supplies into the country would be more feasible this time because Myanmar now has a more extensive network of INGOs and civil society organizations that formed after Nargis struck and would be in better position to intercept the aid. [5]

Seek alternative ways of gaining official entry into Myanmar by working around Schwe, speaking to those among the other twelve members known to be most amenable since cyclone Nargis.

To: the Security Council
Cc: the General Assembly ASEAN, TCG

Changing the international tune

Encourage further communication and resource-sharing between the TCG and major regional powers China and India.[6] Participation by other Southeast-Asian and African international groups could further bring Myanmar into contact with the wider international community.

Communicate through the TCG the dominant view in the international community regarding the seeming indifference with which the Myanmar government values human life. The AU could attempt to explain how its regional model transformed a humanitarian crisis and built stronger relations.

Line up a rolling cast of select international players to prevail upon the Burmese government and others to make the case for democratic transition during weekly meetings of the ASEAN. A representative from the Norwegian Nobel Committee exemplifies the type of speakers we envision.

Re-frame diplomatic tension between military regime in Myanmar and its many detractors by encouraging the latter to both soften and refocus their tone and message from one of outrage to one of concern for the victims and cooperation, in order to continue to improve the situation in Myanmar. This includes prevailing upon government in the West to communicate with Myanmar counterparts through normal diplomatic channels: direct talks, speeches to the General Assembly devoid of direct condemnation of the SPDC.

Choose media outlets selectively, maintaining the focus on the victims of human rights crises and response mechanisms.

Reverse scepticism by Burmese government of western powers. United States, with the complex and often threatening connotations associated with the foreign adventures of its government and military, will play no significant role. Persuade through persistence. Emphasize and explain the case for true democracy through those channels most likely to effect change, such as forming new relationships between international organizations and Myanmar.

Reform the UN. Propose a resolution to abolish permanent members in the Security Council, as they wield too much influence within an organization that is supposed to emphasize equality, as well as peace and security. The removal of each permanent member could happen once a year, as voted on by the General Assembly, so as not to radicalize the UN too quickly.

Coordinate new relationships through ASEAN, a trusted regional body.

Advance the principle of conflict prevention. Further implement mechanisms and coordinate future relief efforts based on agreement between nations, creating an ever expanding and improving road-map for the implementation of R2P principles throughout the international community. Invite the government of Myanmar to participate in discussions to form greater preventive and response-setting plans to natural disaster relief in other countries.

To: the Canadian government

Strengthening R2P at home

1. Educate and train this generation of diplomats with focus on approaching conflicts as opportunities to transform and steady international relations, rather than simply a problem to solve and move past.

2. Increase funding to organizations like the Pearson Peacekeeping Center contingent upon ethical implementation of R2P principles in their programs.

3. Subsidize Burmese language programs, possibly calling upon Burmese-Canadians to serve in such an effort with the goal of facilitating cultural exchanges between Burmese and Canadian high school, universities and a variety of cultural groups.

4. Provide tax credits for Canadians learning those languages of the most conflict-ridden nations, who volunteer or work in the domestic context to strengthen relations between Canada and those nations where employing R2P is a distinct possibility.

[1] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, ‘The Responsibility to Protect’, (2001) 16.

[2] R. Barber, ‘The Responsibility to Protect the Survivors of Natural Disaster’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 18 March 2009.

[3] Tripartite Core Group, ‘UN Special Advisor Gambari Says Myanmar Coordination Body Is a Model’, (Press Release, 25 August 2008).

[4] Human Rights Watch, ‘I Want to Help My Own People’, State Control and Civil Society in Burma after Cyclone Nargis (April 2010), Available at (accessed 24 May 2010).

[5] G. Evans, ‘Crimes Against Humanity and the Responsibility to Protect’ (Speech delivered at Hague Intersessional Experts Meeting Dinner, The Hague, Netherlands, 11 June 2009).

[6] R. Thakur, ‘Should the UN Invoke the “Responsibility to Protect”?’, The Globe and Mail, 8 May, 2008.

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