The military junta in Burma is failing the most basic responsibility of any government to take care of its citizens. In the wake of the devastating typhoon that killed at least 32,000 people and left many more destitute, the international community has marshaled a large-scale humanitarian response to help the millions affected by the deadly storm.
But instead of welcoming this assistance from the world, the junta has denied aid workers entry and has seized the limited United Nations relief supplies that were sent in to help the people of Burma, forcing the UN to temporarily suspend relief efforts and further delaying much-needed help. It represents a shameful failure of the government's foremost responsibility to protect its people.
Vast parts of Burma stand under water. Villages and infrastructure have been blown or washed away. Sanitation systems have broken down, as have transportation and food distribution systems. Millions are in need of the most basic necessities: food, drinking water, shelter. Current estimates are that without immediate assistance, disease, starvation, and death will follow for 1.5 million people.
If not the national government, who can protect the people? The question has long been raised in the context of genocide and large-scale crimes against humanity, and three years ago all the members of the UN provided a solemn answer: the international community. The members agreed that governments have a responsibility to protect their people, and the international community had to assume that responsibility if a government cannot or will not do so.
Last week, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France suggested that the United Nations invoke this collective responsibility to protect the people of Burma. Kouchner knows better than most what is really at stake here, having been the founder and leader of the humanitarian relief group Doctors Without Borders.
Kouchner's words were met with a deafening silence. But the French foreign minister had the right idea - not to resort to the immediate use of force (as all too many assume the responsibility to protect principle means) but to increase international pressure on the Burmese junta to do the right thing.
The United States and Britain should join with the French government and introduce a resolution in the UN Security Council demanding that the Burmese government accept the offers of international relief supplies and personnel, let them to enter the country immediately and without interference, and allow the UN to take charge of the humanitarian mission. To make the case, Washington should show detailed imagery of the suffering and the extent of devastation in Burma (as it did so effectively in the cases of Bosnia and Darfur to shock a disbelieving United Nations).
The resolution should hold open the possibility of additional measures - including air drops of relief supplies - if the government did not comply at once. And the Security Council could commit to return to the matter in 24 hours, assess Burma's response, and consider additional actions.
Skeptics will doubtless say, why bother? China - Burma's closest patron - and perhaps Russia will block any such efforts. But there are good reasons to believe that China will want to avoid the opprobrium that would inevitably follow obstructionism in New York. Having just overcome the widespread condemnation of its actions in Tibet and the embarrassing arms shipments to Zimbabwe, Beijing cannot afford another global public relations crisis that might, this time, convince countries to pull out of the Beijing Olympics. On the contrary, by taking the high road at the highest body of the UN and being seen to use its influence in Rangoon, China would help restore its tattered image.
More important, China would help the people of Burma.
The desperate situation calls out for urgent action. If in this case, when millions of people have been felled by Mother Nature and are let down by their own government, the responsibility to protect principle cannot be invoked, then there is no case where it can. We are at a pressing moment. If the international community fumbles this, it will not only confirm the hollowness of its commitment to the principle, but accelerate the increasing irrelevance of the United Nations.
The world - not least the people of Burma - cannot afford such failure.