What do you do when the world is lined up to help over a million desperate people hit by a cyclone, and Myanmar's hard-line junta blocks that help?
That is the unprecedented situation confronting the United Nations, western aid agencies, and humanitarian organizations. No one has ever seen anything like it. With more than 60,000 dead and missing, and up to 1.5 million threatened by hunger, disease and exposure, Myanmar's generals are stalling. (Myanmar is also known as Burma).
As aid piles up in Thailand, and western ships line up nearby, the junta lets in only an aid trickle and refuses visas for outside experts needed to get a massive flow going. The generals have even seized tons of U.N. food aid that made it into the airport.
Sein Win, exiled prime minister of Burma's last elected government, voiced widespread frustration on Friday: "The refusal of the Burmese government to let aid in is criminal ... a death sentence for many thousands of men, women and children. There is a ticking time bomb in Burma."
So should, or can, U.N. member states force the junta to accept the world's outstretched hand?
Ironically, U.N. members adopted a concept back in fall 2005 that would seem to answer that question. At the urging of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the General Assembly endorsed the following principle: The international community has a "responsibility to protect" civilians when their governments can't or won't stop genocide or crimes against humanity - even if this means violating a country's national sovereignty.
This concept, known variously as "humanitarian intervention" or by the abbreviation "R2P," has gone nowhere. It has not proved useful in dealing with the quasi-genocide in Darfur. Authoritarian regimes view R2P as a potential cover for western military efforts at regime change.
But if it ever had any relevance, the concept ought to apply to the horrific situation in Myanmar. The issue at hand is not changing the country's regime (which has kept Nobel-prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 16 years after voiding 1990 elections). The issue is saving lives; the junta's stonewalling could create a humanitarian catastrophe.
That fear drove France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Doctors Without Borders, to declare last week that the United Nations should invoke its "responsibility to protect." He called for the world body to "obtain a United Nations resolution which authorizes the delivery (of aid) and imposes this on the Burmese government." But China, and several other Security Council members opposed French efforts to raise this idea, as did senior U.N. officials. There has been an intense debate this past week among human rights experts over whether the concept applies.
I asked Edward Luck, a special adviser to Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, whether Kouchner was on the right track. "Kouchner's statement probably helped draw attention" to the Burma crisis, Luck said, "but I don't think this is the proper application" of the concept.
"The way Kouchner put it seemed to assume some kind of military response," Luck continued. "You don't want to deliver aid at the point of a gun. At the end of the day you have to persuade the (Burmese) government to accept help rather than force it down their throat."
Indeed, it is hard to imagine how international aid workers could operate under such circumstances, especially when they might have to stay for some time. On the other hand, the Burmese junta's refusal to help their own people cries out for global reaction.
Think back on similar crises. Iran accepted international aid for the devastating 2003 Bam earthquake. Swift international aid saved tens of thousands in several Asian nations after the 2004 tsunami. Pakistan, a country prickly about its sovereignty, let U.S. military transport planes bring in aid after the devastating 2005 earthquake in Kashmir (and U.S. soldiers became heroes).
According to Luck, many African nations backed R2P because they hoped it might help prevent a future genocidal outbreak similar to the one that killed 800,000 Rwandans. When it comes to a natural catastrophe like the cyclone in Burma, are developing nations really willing to let the junta sacrifice its own people?
Do some Security Council members really believe that an operation spearheaded by U.N. technical agencies is aimed at regime change? The R2P concept endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly does not require military action. But it surely requires massive international pressure on the Burmese government.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch told me the most effective way to coerce consent from the generals would be for Burma's neighbors to exert pressure. He refers to the association of southeast Asian nations, along with India and China. This poses another challenge for China to show it can be a global leader as the 2009 Olympics draw near.
But it is pathetic that the world is reduced to begging a handful of generals to let it send in food, medicine, doctors, and aid workers. Perhaps the generals will relent. If China and ASEAN can't or won't make them, must the world stand by as CNN films the dying?
If that doesn't constitute a crime against humanity, what does?